I Need Answers: SIDS and the Fear Its Name Brings

 

Irene Sundell, three months old, sleeps on her father’s chest.

It was a Thursday night when I opened up the online forum where thousands of women had posted their stories about losing their young children.

Their babies had died before they even reached a year old and the cause of death was attributed to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). These perfectly healthy babies slipped away in the night leaving their mothers with an empty hole in their heart.

 I have a three-month-old daughter. I need answers for why this is a relatively common occurrence. My baby can’t die.

“[My son] was three months and three days old when the worst day of my life happened, the last day of his.”  This post was made by a mourning mother on April 7, 2015 to the Baby Center support group for parents who had lost a baby.

The story of this woman losing her son detailed how happy and healthy he seemed in the hours leading up to his death and how he had died in his sleep in his crib.  The concept of there not being any warning for the death of somebody’s child is a terrifying one and despite all the advancements of today’s medicine, the cause and the methods of prevention are still debated.

As I read through the various stories and the various ages of death for these babies, I looked over to my own 3-month-old daughter and watched her sleep. The fear that my daughter would die before she had even had a chance to experience life is one that eats at me every day despite the fact that she was born at a healthy weight and is in seemingly perfect health. She is a wonderful baby with no signs of issue.  So were all these babies that the moms were describing in their horror stories.

The deaths described on the support forum ranged a bit, but most consisted of babies who seemed perfect the night before dying in their sleep.  Many of these babies were premature.

Another story posted on Nov. 30, 2017 described the death of a 3-day-old baby girl born at 35 weeks old.  She had been asleep for 30 minutes when her mother found her dead in her crib. Despite attempts at CPR by first responders, she did not survive.

In the United States, SIDS is very common, afflicting every six out of every 1000 babies, according to the National Center for Education in Maternal and Child Health. There are campaigns like “Back To Sleep,” which stress the need for babies under a year old to fall asleep lying on their backs.  

Additionally, there are efforts to keep mothers from sharing sleep spaces with their babies out of concern for them accidentally rolling on top of and suffocating their babies.  Bed sharing is supposed to be one of the leading causes of SIDS and according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, “it should be avoided at all times.”  While this advice exists, it is difficult for the mother to really understand if that is best due to the fact that the true causes remain unknown.

Tracy Baser-Decker, a pediatrician in Tucson, says safe sleep environments are incredibly important not just in the sense of preventing SIDS, but also because of accidents that can happen when a baby is sleeping in an environment considered to not be safe.  These kinds of environments can include bumpers on cribs and soft bedding or pillows that increase the likelihood of suffocation.

Pushing safe sleeping practices for babies has turned into a conundrum for some parents as they struggle to find out what is best.  James McKenna has been studying infant sleep for 40 years and works as an anthropologist at Notre Dame University and commented in an interview for NPR’s article on parents sleeping with their babies that what is natural for the physiology of a baby is what is best.  

According to McKenna, babies desire that close contact constantly and sharing a sleep space with your baby may be beneficial for their overall wellbeing.

Despite the attention given to these campaigns, the changes made to increased sleep safety for babies have not completely given a clear answer as to what really causes SIDS and it still proves to be prevalent today.  Approximately 40 percent of documented cultures share beds with their babies, reported NPR, and all of these cultures have varying frequencies of SIDS happening in their societies.

The concept of a baby yearning for the connection they form with their mother during sleep is one McKenna described further to NPR.  He theorizes the sound of a mother’s heartbeat and the warmth of her body is one that naturally promotes good health, both mentally and physically in babies.  Sleeping with a mom can help create a similar environment as when the baby was in the mother’s womb, he says.

I sleep better at night having my baby next to me, whether it be in my bed or in a crib next to my bed.  When she is close, I can hear her tiny breaths and can look up to watch her as she drifts to sleep. I often find myself waking up suddenly and jerking upright to touch her chest to feel if she’s still breathing.  

My baby can’t die.

 

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