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The Top 3 Theories About What Causes SIDS

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Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, otherwise known as SIDS, is a term every parent has heard, but that doesn't mean they understand what it actually entails. Because there is no exact reason to explain what happens, there are a couple of common theories about what causes SIDS that are helping researchers and parents alike put an end to it.

According to the American SIDS Institute, there are about 4,000 sudden infant deaths per year in the United States. Half of those deaths are diagnosed as SIDS or unexplained, but the other half are diagnosed as due to other causes. This is partly why SIDS can be so confusing for parents to understand — it's often confused with suffocation or some other form of death. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted that even with a thorough investigation of an infant's death, it's difficult to tell a SIDS death apart from an accidental suffocation death.

Without a determined cause of SIDS, all researchers can do is work towards proving and disproving the top theories about what causes it. An article in EMBO Reports suggested that SIDS is a combination of genetic, metabolic, and environmental factors that, combined, can lead to infant death. Meaning, even if one of the theories behind SIDS is found to be an actual cause, it may not be the only factor and there could be culminated issues that led to a death.

But as the theories change, it's important to know the top theories about what causes SIDS. These ones haven't wavered much over the years and continue to be a path for research, although the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development believes a combination of all three theories is what's needed to actually cause SIDS. (Which explains why an unsafe sleeping environment doesn't necessarily cause SIDS, but can be an added risk.)

1. Brain Abnormalities

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According to the National Institutes of Health, more than 40 percent of infants that had died from SIDS were found to have an abnormality in the hippocampus. This area of the brain influences certain bodily functions like breathing, heart rate, and body temperature with its connections to the brain stem. Researchers claimed that the brain abnormalities were found in victims of SIDS more than those whose deaths could be attributed to another factor. The theory is that this abnormality may destabilize the brain's ability to control the baby's breathing and heart rate patterns while they are sleeping or during the moments they try and wake up during sleep.

2. Unsafe Sleep Environments Mixed With A Vulnerable Infant

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It's no secret that a safe sleeping environment can help reduce the risk of SIDS, but pillows and blankets in the crib are not necessarily a direct cause of SIDS. Instead, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development theorized that it's a combination of things that can cause SIDS, like an unsafe sleep environment combined with a vulnerable infant. The theory is that outside hazards or stressors like sleeping on tummies or overheating would not be fatal in an infant that wasn't already vulnerable. This is why some families are able to co-sleep without an issue or can use blankets and stuffed animals in a crib without their child suffering from SIDS. But, because you can't be 100 percent sure if your child is vulnerable or not (such as having the aforementioned brain abnormality), it's best to err on the side of caution and maintain a safe sleeping environment — no blankets, pillows or stuffed animals in the crib and a firm sleeping surface for your infant.

3. A Child's Development In The First 6 Months

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According to the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the first six months of your child's life can also factor into the causes of SIDS. Changes like your child's breathing and heart rate patterns, blood pressure, and body temperature could potentially destabilize a baby's internal systems temporarily.