Study Could Provide Sudden Infant Death Syndrome Hope

A new study conducted with help from the San Diego County Medical Examiner’s Office raises the hope that one day parents may be given early warnings that their babies may be more susceptible to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).

The study was published Sept. 11 in “Pediatrics,” the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics. It determined that infants whose brainstems didn’t produce enough serotonin could stop breathing even if they were placed in the safe sleeping positions that are recommended to protect against SIDS — on their backs and not on their stomachs or sides.

A 2007 study of 209 sudden, unexpected infant deaths showed that asphyxia — the lack of oxygen or excess of carbon dioxide often caused by interrupted breathing — was the cause or potential cause of death 86 percent of the time in SIDS deaths.

The Boston Children’s Hospital doctors who conducted the latest study said their new findings open the door to the possibility of being able to create tests that could detect this brainstem abnormality and protect these infants. The doctors said for now, at the very least, parents who have suffered the devastating loss of an infant and felt they must have done something wrong may be comforted by the the discovery of a possible biological reason for these deaths.

The doctors relied upon cases of infants who were autopsied by the San Diego County Medical Examiner’s Office between 1997 and 2008.

Doctors Glenn Wagner and Jonathan Lucas, San Diego County’s Medical Examiner and Chief Deputy Medical Examiner, said the County has had a longstanding relationship with Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego and its Director of Pathology Research, Dr. Henry Krous.

Wagner said California has the most widely-used SIDS protocols in the U.S. and that the County’s close working relationship with Rady’s had given the County opportunities to take part in studies such as the Boston Children’s Hospital study.

Lucas said Boston Children’s Hospital’s work on SIDS had been groundbreaking and that the new research might one day save lives.

“To have some sort of a marker that could be checked and tested beforehand, so that maybe adults could prevent these deaths, would be the ultimate goal of these studies,” Lucas said.

The National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that SIDS kills about 2,000 children every year in the U.S. SIDS is defined as the sudden death of an infant under the age of one that cannot be explained even after investigation and autopsy.

Scientists first recognized SIDS as a distinct condition in 1969. After studies showed a significant link between SIDS incidents and babies sleeping on their stomachs, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) started a national “Back to Sleep” education campaign in 1994, which helped cut the numbers of SIDS deaths by 50 percent nationwide over the next decade.

In 2012, San Diego County helped with a study that among other things, improved safe sleeping guidelines, recommending that infants not share beds with parents, but be placed down to sleep in cribs with well-fitting, firm mattresses and no bumper pads.



Gig Conaughton is a communications specialist with the County of San Diego Communications Office. Contact