International research has uncovered a developmental abnormality in babies – especially in premature babies and in boys – that for the first time has been directly linked to cases of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
Researchers believe this abnormality in the brain’s control of head and neck movement, breathing, heartbeat and the body’s responses to deprivation of oxygen supply, could be the reason why some babies sleeping on their front are more at risk of SIDS.
The research was conducted by Dr Fiona Bright and Professor Roger Byard at Australia’s Adelaide Medical School, in collaboration with Professor Hannah Kinney’s lab at Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital.
“One of the reasons why SIDS is so devastating for families is that death often occurs with no warning and no obvious signs of illness,” says Dr Fiona Bright, Research Associate in the Adelaide Medical School.
“While the exact cause of death in SIDS has not been identified, multiple studies have pointed to a subset of SIDS babies that are not entirely ‘normal’ before death. These infants all seem to have some form of underlying vulnerability, exposing them to increased risk.
“Our studies have now discovered a significant abnormality within key regions of the brainstem in SIDS babies, specifically in parts of the brainstem that control breathing and movements of the head and neck. This abnormality is directly linked to SIDS cases,” she says.
“An infant with this abnormality is likely to have impaired respiratory and motor responses to life-threatening challenges during sleep. While they may be otherwise healthy looking, there is an inability for that child’s brain and body to respond appropriately to an event in which the child is deprived of oxygen in some way.”
Study supervisor Professor Roger Byard, Professor of Pathology at the University of Adelaide, says this abnormality is a key reason why it is more dangerous for babies to sleep on their front.
“We’ve known for many years that babies sleeping face down places them at greater risk of SIDS – now we have a much better understanding as to why,” Professor Byard says.
“If a child has this underlying vulnerability in its brain chemistry, and its breathing becomes compromised by sleeping on its front, that child is at greater risk of death because its body simply can’t respond in the normal way. The baby can’t lift its head, and its breathing and heartbeat will be compromised,” he says.