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Sudden Indfant Deaths: New Study Finds Cause - Or Merely Symptom?

I don't know if I can think of a worse nightmare for parents then walking into their newborn baby's room and finding their infant dead. Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) was a horror that first started rearing its ugly head about twenty years ago. At least that's when the medical profession started to categorize the mysterious unexplained deaths of infants under the age of a year; who knows how long it had been occurring in the years prior to that.

Crib deaths, as it is also referred to, are characterized as the unexplained death of an infant under the age of a year while sleeping. A perfectly healthy child was put to bed by its parents and would simply stop breathing in its sleep for no apparent reason. Parents of course would be guilt ridden as well as grief stricken blaming themselves for what they saw as a seemingly preventable death.

Finally there might be at least a partial explanation for this mysterious horror. Researchers in the United States have compared the brain autopsies of 31 SIDS victims over the past ten years with those of ten infants who've died of other causes and noticed an abnormality in their brain stems that might effect breathing. The defect seemed to affect the brain stems ability to regulate serotonin, the chemical that helps to control vital bodily functions.

While this in no way can be seen as conclusive evidence due to the small numbers in the study, it does go a long way to supporting what doctors at Sick Children's Hospital in Toronto Canada have long suspected; that some brain function in these children has been inhibited in order for the deaths to occur. Dr. Ernest Cutz, who has studied the disease, believes that the discovery is one step towards removing the mystery surrounding SIDS, and hopes it will help improve prevention and perhaps even lead to a way of eradicating it permanently.

Aurore Côté of Montreal's Children's Hospital and a specialist in SIDS is the one who cautioned that the sampling in these test results is too small to be conclusive in any way. Besides which she says the two major risk factors involving the syndrome are already established – putting babies to sleep face down and tobacco smoke during pregnancy.

In Canada education campaigns have been highly effective, reducing the number of SIDS related deaths from over 400 a year annually a decade ago to 100. Even in this recent study it was shown that 65% of the deaths were babies that had not been put to sleep on their backs. In other words there is still a worrying lack of awareness of basic prevention methods among parents in the United States.

It seems to me only a question of common sense. One of the first things you are told when handling a newborn infant is to insure that you always support its head. The head is the largest single part of the human body and the baby's neck muscles are nowhere near developed enough to be able to support that weight. If the child is laid face down in its bed it will never be able to move in order to take a deep breath if required.

But that also leads me to wonder about something, and that is has this study found a cause, or have they merely found another symptom? If the weight of a child's head causes the brain stem to be placed under undue strain because the muscles of the neck can't protect it, does this increase the likelihood of the lack of serotonin control? Would the baby laying on its stomach cause its oesophagus to close, resulting in decreased oxygen to the brain, which in turn would cause the brain stem's effectiveness to depreciate resulting in reducing the control of serotonin. In other words, effectively cause suffocation and the failure of the body's alarm system ability to warn of that potential simultaneously.

Might it not be possible that this new study's findings are simply a report of cause and effect instead of being any major breakthrough? The question that the study needs to answer is whether the lack of serotonin control was a pre-existing condition or simply an ancillary result of the cause of death – gradual asphyxiation caused by the collapse of the infant's windpipe due to its inability to support the weight of it's own head.

Was the baby born with the brain defect that allowed for the impairment of the serotonin or did the defect develop because of the causes of death over its short lifespan and influences during gestation? It's easy to say oh look, this number of infants died and they all have X wrong with them and conclude that X is the factor that causes that death. But to do so without ascertaining the cause of X is sloppy science.

Try a simple experiment on yourself: let your head fall backwards so that your chin points to the ceiling and your neck and the spinal column within it are compressed. While your head is in that position do you notice that you're not breathing as deeply as you should? When you return your head to its normal upright position you may experience some dizziness or light-headedness, caused by lack of oxygen to the brain. But you didn't receive any warnings that you weren't breathing normally did you?

The results of this latest study showed that 65% of the infants had not been sleeping on their backs. There has been no report of whether or not there were any other mitigating factors, like smoking during pregnancy or second hand smoke, considered that would have impacted on the other 35%, and that is important to find out. If all 31 infants in the study were exposed to high-risk situations of some sort it would be negligent to ignore that fact.

While it would be wonderful to say that the cause of this heartbreak has been discovered, it seems to me like there are too many question marks surrounding this latest study to raise anyone's hopes. Before we start rushing out to fill prescriptions for infant serotonin regulators I think far more study needs to be done on when the brain defect developed and its cause.

Right now there is as much likelihood that they've discovered a symptom of SIDS as a cause. For real peace of mind about SIDS see your family doctor and get educated on all that you can do to prevent it. That seems to be still the best cure.

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