Updated: Jun 28, 2020
By Abby Strong
In late June 2006, Los Angeles Lakers basketball superstar Lamar Odom’s name made the papers, but not for his athletic fame. Late at night on June 29, Odom’s 6 ½ month-old son, Jayden, died suddenly in his sleep. Jayden, along with 2,500 other young children across America each year, was a victim of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, or SIDS. The third leading cause of infant mortality in America, SIDS is a widespread, nightmarish condition that remains largely unexplained.
Doctors define Sudden Infant Death Syndrome as the sudden and unexplained death of a healthy infant under the age of 12 months. Most often, SIDS victims pass away overnight, found unresponsive by their caregivers in the morning with no evidence of disease or physical trauma.
As a babysitter and nanny, I have had first-hand experience with American perspectives of SIDS. When I took classes to become a babysitter in 2012, SIDS was mentioned briefly in my Red Cross texts but wasn’t analyzed or justified. It was a “taboo” term that my trainer avoided in her lecture, and no one seemed to want to talk about it. Over the years, I’ve noticed that most of my clients view SIDS as an unfortunate anomaly that cannot be entirely avoided. Throughout my caregiving career, I’ve been instilled with a wary caution of SIDS, but over the years, have come to wonder if the condition is as inevitable as its reputation suggests.
When SIDS was first defined in 1969, most Americans viewed it as a random and spontaneous tragedy. Affecting all children from diverse households, SIDS was the new mother’s boogeyman, a nightmare that no family was entirely safe from. Later in the 20th century, as more studies were published on the condition, the modern understanding of SIDS as a type of accidental suffocation emerged. Though this theory may be correct and efforts to ensure that infants stay breathing overnight have dramatically reduced SIDS frequencies, survey-based studies over the past 10 years have suggested that there are more complex reasons behind the condition.
Several basic patterns have been found between SIDS and pediatric health. According to the Mayo Clinic, premature babies and/or children of low birth weight are most likely to fall victim to the condition. Additionally, babies that have had a recent infection may be more susceptible. Environmental factors are also correlated with SIDS risk: infants who sleep on soft surfaces, wear heavy clothing, or on their stomachs are at a higher danger of becoming victims. These basic risk factors have been widely accepted by healthcare providers, parents, and the media. Further, the fear of SIDS has created a market demand for “SIDS-safe” mattresses and bedding, though these products have not been endorsed by the FDA.
Over the past few years, more obscure patterns that connect SIDS victims to external health factors have been explored. In the early 2000s, it was found that infants born of mothers who smoked during their pregnancy are 5 times as likely to die of SIDS. This suggests a loose connection between lung development and infant respiratory accidents. Patterns involving sex, ethnicity, and age have also been discovered. Babies who are male and/or non-white are more susceptible to SIDS, as do children between 1 month and 4 months of age.
Most recent — and most interesting to me — is research connecting SIDS to the brain. In a 2014 study by affiliates of the National Institute of Health, it was found that 40% of surveyed SIDS cases had a brain abnormality affecting the hippocampus. A key structure of the midbrain, the hippocampus is essential to memory and spatial awareness. Additionally, its proximity to the brainstem means it could have an influence over autonomic regulation of breathing and heart rate. This discovery may be a breakthrough in understanding patterns and risk factors related to SIDS. It’s possible that a common birth defect involving the hippocampus may be one of the most important red flags to search for when determining SIDS risk.
Fortunately, the increased awareness and publicity regarding SIDS since its discovery has reduced death rates dramatically. Today, an approximate 2,500 children die of SIDS in the U.S. each year, a significant decrease from the annual 10,000 in the 1960s. Risk factors such as stomach-sleeping have been brought to the media through campaigns such as the 1990s “Safe to Sleep” program (which, by encouraging back-sleeping, has been accredited for halving SIDS fatalities). Still, however, researchers around the world work to uncover more cases of SIDS. Community awareness and basic prevention techniques, along with a reverence for victims like Jayden, must suffice.