Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) is when a seemingly healthy baby dies unexpectedly and suddenly, and there is no explanation for the cause of their death. Even after a thorough investigation, an explanation for cause of death may not be found.

SIDS, also known as crib death, usually occurs while a baby is asleep.

Even though SIDS is considered rare, it’s the most common cause of death for children between the age of 1 month and 1 year. It most often happens between the ages of 2 and 4 months. In 2018, approximately 1,300 babies died of SIDS in the United States.

SIDS doesn’t have any noticeable symptoms. It happens suddenly and unexpectedly to infants who seem to be healthy.

The cause of SIDS is unknown, but scientists are looking at some potential causes. Some of these possible causes being investigated include:

  • a form of apnea (periods of stopped breathing while sleeping)
  • brain abnormality in the area that controls breathing

While the cause isn’t yet known, SIDS does have several risk factors. Many of these risk factors can be avoided, so it’s important to be aware of them. Some risk factors for SIDS include:

  • the most significant risk factor: laying your baby to sleep on their stomach or side before the age of 1
  • brain defects (many times these aren’t detected until an autopsy)
  • respiratory infection
  • low weight at birth
  • premature birth or birth of multiples
  • family history of SIDS
  • secondhand smoke or mother smoking during pregnancy
  • race (African American and Native American babies are twice as likely to die of SIDS than other races for reasons that aren’t known)
  • sex (males have a slightly higher risk than females)
  • young mother (under the age of 20)
  • more common during winter or cold weather (although that statistic may be changing)
  • overheating
  • co-sleeping (sharing a bed with a parent or caregiver)
  • unsafe or old crib
  • bedding or mattress that’s too soft
  • crib that contains soft objects
  • using a sleep positioner or wedge while feeding or sleeping, which is not recommended by the Food and Drug Administration
  • not using a pacifier for sleep
  • not breastfeeding

Avoiding as many of these risk factors as possible will reduce your baby’s risk of SIDS.

SIDS doesn’t have a known cause and, therefore, isn’t preventable. But SIDS does have many known risk factors. While some of the risks can’t be avoided, many can be avoided or reduced.

The most critical risk factor is placing babies under the age of 1 to sleep on their stomach or side. That’s why the most important thing you can do to reduce the risk of SIDS is to lay your baby on their back whenever you’re putting them to sleep for the night or a nap.

Another step in the prevention of SIDS is to put your baby to sleep with a pacifier even if it eventually falls out of the baby’s mouth. However — use only the pacifier. The pacifier should not be on a cord around your baby’s neck, or attached to the baby’s clothing, bedding, or a stuffed animal.

If you’re breastfeeding, you may want to wait until your baby is feeding easily before using a pacifier. This usually takes about a month or so.

There are other ways to reduce the risk of SIDS. Some of these include the following:

  • Don’t smoke, use alcohol, or misuse drugs during pregnancy or after birth.
  • Don’t let anyone smoke in your home or around your baby.
  • Get regular prenatal care during your pregnancy.
  • Keep your baby close to you when they are sleeping — in the same room, but not in the same bed.
  • Avoid co-sleeping (bed sharing) with your baby or letting them sleep with other children or adults.
  • Remove toys, bumper pads, blankets, sleep positioners, and pillows from the crib when putting your baby down to sleep.
  • Avoid overwrapping (swaddling) your baby when putting them down to sleep.
  • Use a safety-approved crib mattress and place a fitted sheet over it.
  • Breastfeed your baby to help reduce the risk of SIDS.

Don’t rely on baby monitors or devices that claim to reduce the risk of SIDS. They don’t work and may have safety issues.

Losing a baby for any reason can be devastating. However, losing a baby to SIDS can have additional emotional ramifications beyond those of grief and guilt. There will also be a mandatory investigation and autopsy to try to find the cause of your baby’s death, which can add to the emotional toll.

In addition, the loss of a child can strain the relationship between spouses as well as have an emotional impact on any other children in the family.

For these reasons, getting support is critical. There are several support groups for those who have lost a child where you can find others who understand how you’re feeling. Counseling may also be helpful for both the grieving process as well as for your relationship with your spouse.

The following are some of the groups that offer support for those who have lost a child:

These are just some of the resources available to you as you and your family work through your loss. Many churches also offer counseling as well as grief support groups.

SIDS doesn’t have a cause and can’t always be prevented. However, taking appropriate actions can help reduce your baby’s risks.

Seeing your doctor during pregnancy as well as your baby’s doctor after giving birth for all routine checkups is also important.

If you have lost a child to SIDS, it’s important to get support. You’ll need to work through your grief, and this will be easier to do with the help of others who understand.

Remember, grief takes time and is different for everyone. The best thing you can do is be open with your loved ones and those in your support group about how you’re feeling as you work through your devastating loss.