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It’s the call every pediatrician dreads. Mine came at three o’clock on a cold morning in the winter of 1972. I picked up the receiver and heard a mother’s voice on the other end: “Doctor, my baby’s dead!” Incredulous, I rushed to her home and found devastated parents holding their lifeless child. The paramedics had just left. I will never forget the look of shock and disbelief on the faces of the parents. That was the first time I witnessed the grief caused by sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
Even though each year 4,500 to 6,000 babies in the United States go to sleep and never wake up, SIDS is one of the tragedies least likely to happen in a family. It only occurs in approximately 1 to 2 babies per thousand, meaning that 99.9 percent of babies go to bed each night and do wake up. Still, even the possibility can be shattering.
As I sat helplessly in front of the heartbroken couple, I hoped that some day I would be able to look confidently into the eyes of all parents and say, “Yes, here’s what you can do to lessen the chances of your baby dying of SIDS.”
My wish is now being fulfilled. In recent years new insights have taken the hopelessness out of SIDS. In many countries prevention programs have been shown to reduce the risk of SIDS by 50 percent and more. Here are five steps you can take to protect your baby.
1 Give your baby a healthy womb environment. Prematurity and low birth weight are two risk factors for SIDS, and what you do while pregnant has a direct effect on both. Although the SIDS risk in premature babies is higher, the good news is that 99 percent of premature babies don’t die of SIDS. Mothers who take good prenatal care of themselves and use prevention tips can reduce the risk, even if their babies are premature.
Grow your baby in a drug-free womb. Taking drugs while pregnant increases the risk of SIDS in two ways: First, it ups the chance of your baby being born prematurely. Second, researchers believe that drugs such as opiates and cocaine constrict blood vessels in the placenta and reduce oxygen supply to the respiratory control center in the brain that regulates breathing—a suffocation effect.
2 Do not allow smoking around your baby—pre- or postnatally. One of the most significant risk factors for SIDS is smoking around a baby—whether the baby is in the womb or simply in the same room. Studies show that exposure to cigarette smoking at least doubles the risk of SIDS. Any maternal smoking during pregnancy may more than triple the risk, and heavy maternal smoking (more than 20 cigarettes a day) increases this SIDS risk fivefold.
Nicotine narrows blood vessels, reduces blood flow to the baby, and robs Baby of oxygen. Anything that lowers oxygen to the baby may increase the risk of SIDS, probably by harming the development of Baby’s respiratory control system in the brain, and also by stunting overall growth. The risk of SIDS also increases if a pregnant woman is around secondhand smoke (especially if her partner smokes). Demand that your family and coworkers respect the life inside your womb. If your job requires working in a smoke-contaminated area while pregnant, know that this could be grounds for a reassignment to a baby-healthy environment. (Check with your state’s occupational safety and health administration.)
Simply smoking around babies after birth places them at increased risk of SIDS. You endanger your baby whenever you take him into a room frequented by smokers. Even sitting in the nonsmoking area in public places is helpful, but not always enough; it’s a little like trying to chlorinate half a swimming pool.