Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) is terrifying, but sadly it happens every day. One of the many risk factors is smoking, whether by the mother or by somebody in the house with the infant. This is why all daycare staff should understand how to reduce the risk.
In 2014, around 1,500 infants died of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). It’s the leading cause of death in infants aged between 1 and 12 months, and reducing the risk of SIDS is a huge priority for both parents and daycare staff. Many different factors are implicated in SIDS deaths, and this includes tobacco use by parents or daycare staff. Finding out what SIDS is, how it’s linked to tobacco use and how parents and daycare staff can reduce the risk is essential to avoiding tragedy.
What is SIDS?
SIDS isn’t easy to define. When an infant under 1 year of age dies unexpectedly, and a detailed review of the scene of the death, an autopsy and a review of medical history reveals no apparent cause, it is classed as a SIDS death. Most SIDS deaths occur while the infant is asleep, but this isn’t true in every case.
In summary, SIDS is defined as a sudden infant death with no clear explanation. SIDS is often grouped with accidental suffocation and deaths from unknown causes under the name sudden unexpected infant death (SUID).
The cause of SIDS is not precisely known. However, several potential causes of SIDS have been investigated by researchers and experts, including vulnerability to environmental stresses such as tobacco smoke, and how problems with how some babies regulate their bodily functions such as breathing, heart rate and temperature.
One potential explanation, for example, is that babies susceptible to SIDS have defects in the area of the brain where serotonin is produced. This neurotransmitter (a signaling chemical used by the brain) is responsible for waking and regulating breathing.
As you sleep, your blood oxygen levels can fluctuate. When levels get too low, your brain releases serotonin to wake you up just enough to adjust your sleeping position and raise your levels of blood oxygen. This happens without your knowledge. SIDS is thought to be related to a malfunction in this system which prevents the infant from being woken.
SIDS and Tobacco: The Well-Established Link
Although there is still a lot of uncertainty about the causes of SIDS, there is reliable evidence that tobacco and SIDS are intimately connected.
The link between smoking and SIDS is strongest in cases where the mother smokes during pregnancy. Nearly 50 studies have investigated this link, and have found an approximately five-fold increase in SIDS risk when mothers smoke during pregnancy.
However, there is also a risk from exposure to second-hand tobacco smoke. The best evidence for this comes from cases where the infant’s mother does not smoke but the father does. These studies suggest an increase in risk of approximately 40 percent, reinforcing the point that the biggest risk comes from maternal smoking during pregnancy.
Preventing SIDS – Advice for Parents and Daycare Staff
The biggest concern for parents and daycare staff is how to prevent SIDS from occurring. There may not be clear evidence on the causes of SIDS, but several evidence-based strategies for reducing the risk of SIDS have been identified.
- Put infants to sleep on their backs. Infants should always sleep on their backs, whether at night or during naps. Campaigns to educate parents and daycare providers on this point have led to substantial reductions in SIDS deaths.
- Put infants to sleep on a firm surface free from loose bedding or soft objects. Soft objects and mattresses can lead to suffocation and increase the risk of SIDS, so ensure your baby sleeps on a firm surface free from potential hazards.
- Room-share with your infant. Sleeping in the same room as the infant (or having someone else in there) reduces the risk of SIDS and other sleep-related causes of death. However, don’t allow infants to sleep on adult beds, or on couches or chairs with you or anyone else.
- Avoid smoking, drinking and drugs while pregnant or after your baby is born.
- Don’t allow smoking near your baby.
The latter two points are particularly important for the discussion of smoking and SIDS, and are important pieces of advice for parents and daycare staff. Mothers and daycare staff should avoid smoking while pregnant, and take steps to protect your baby from second-hand smoke exposure.
To keep any risk to an absolute minimum, daycare staff should avoid smoking while on-shift, even if you smoke outside. There may not be evidence of a link to SIDS, but small amounts particles from the smoke get trapped in your clothing and re-emitted into the air later. This is called “third-hand” smoke.
Minimize the Risk of SIDS and Protect Your Health by Quitting Smoking
Smoking and SIDS are intimately connected, but there are many more reasons to stop smoking for both parents and daycare staff. Quitting smoking reduces your risk of a multitude of health conditions, and increases both your lifespan and your quality of life. It isn’t easy to quit, but there are many evidence-based strategies you can use to make a positive change in your life. Protecting infants is one benefit, but you’ll also be protecting yourself.