The sudden death of a young child may seem inexplicable. It's important for parents to know about sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). What is SIDS? What are some of the defining characteristics of this condition? Is it related to an occurrence called an apparent life-threatening event (ALTE)?
To reach a better understanding of this condition and answer these questions, let’s explore an excerpt from UpToDate -- a trusted electronic medical reference used by health care providers and patients alike. Then, continue reading below about what this information may mean for you.
"SIDS is the term used to describe the sudden and unexplained death of an infant who is between one month and one year of age. Most infants are between two and four months and 90 percent are less than 6 months old. Most infants die during sleep, often between midnight and 6 AM, and have no signs that they suffered.
"Before a child is said to have died of SIDS, all other possible causes of death must be investigated.
"An apparent life-threatening event (ALTE) is a term to describe an acute, unexpected change in an infant's breathing behavior that was frightening to the infant's caretaker and that included some combination of the following features:
- Apnea — usually no effort to breathe or sometimes attempts to breathe with difficulty (obstructive)
- Color change — usually blue-tinged or pale skin, but occasionally reddened
- Marked change in muscle tone (usually limpness or rarely rigidity)
- Choking or gagging
"In the past, children who experienced ALTE were believed to be at risk for SIDS. However, the vast majority of infants who die of SIDS do not experience ALTE prior to death. Studies over the past two decades have failed to find any evidence that children who experience ALTE are at increased risk of SIDS."
Sudden infant death affects young children, typically those in early infancy. SIDS occurs without warning. As described above, it often happens during the infant’s sleep. During the critical first year of life, children’s sleep changes. As a newborn, sleep is spread throughout the day and night. By the age of 2 or 3 months, this sleep becomes more consolidated at night as the circadian rhythm is established.
Episodes that include a change in breathing or muscle tone have been concerning as a possible risk for SIDS in the past. These apparent life-threatening events can be scary for parents. There may be signs of pauses in breathing, called apnea, and other signs of disrupted breathing like choking or gasping. Many children who die of SIDS do not experience ALTE, however, and these events are not likely associated with one another.
There are established risk factors for SIDS, but the cause of SIDS is still not fully understood. Fortunately, there does appear to be a simple and effective way to reduce the risk of your infant dying from SIDS: placing your child to sleep on his or her back. This simple intervention may be enough to save your baby’s life during this important developmental period.
Want to learn more? See UpToDate's topic, "Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS)," for additional in-depth medical information.
Corwin, Michael. "Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS)." UpToDate. Accessed: February 2012.