It's a funeral I will never forget: A tiny white casket at the front of the church holds a beautiful baby boy I had seen for his 2-month check-up just days before. He had been perfect and healthy and full of smiles that day, the joy of his family. Then he died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome or SIDS.
Every year about 2,000 babies in the United States die of SIDS. It is the leading cause of death for infants 1 to 12 months old. (The highest risk is for babies 2 to 4 months old.) Twice as many infants died before the Back to Sleep campaign began in 1992 and advised parents and caregivers to put babies on their backs to sleep. But this is still far too many lost lives and devastated families.
We don't know exactly what causes SIDS. In fact, SIDS is defined as the sudden death of an infant that can't be explained after it's been investigated. Maybe there are many different causes. It appears, though, that some babies don't react to having their mouths and noses covered by moving their heads so that they can breathe better. The brain doesn't send the message that it should, and the baby suffocates.
It's difficult to prevent something when you don't know exactly what causes it. But research has shown that parents can help lower their children's risk of SIDS. Here are some suggestions from the American Academy of Pediatrics:
Although babies should always be put to sleep on their backs, that doesn't mean they should never be on their bellies. Make sure your baby has "tummy time" every day to help strengthen the muscles in her shoulders and neck, and prevent flattening of the back of the head. (If not, don't despair. Once babies are a little bigger and learn to sit up, the head flattening gets better.)
The faces of those parents as they followed that white casket out of the church will stay with me for the rest of my life. If more parents follow the recommendations, we can hopefully save some lives while researchers figure out what causes SIDS and how to prevent all SIDS-related deaths.
Claire McCarthy, M.D. is an assistant professor in pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, an attending physician at Children's Hospital of Boston, and medical director of the Martha Eliot Health Center, a neighborhood health service of Children's Hospital. She is a senior medical editor for Harvard Health Publications.