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Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) Spikes On New Year's Day

The first large-scale, U.S. study looking at the connection between alcohol and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) shows a serious spike in infant death on New Year’s Day, suggesting drunkenness plays a part in infant deaths.

The study looked at data on 129,090 SIDS cases from 1973-2006. Researchers also found that SIDS cases went up on weekends and were twice as likely in mothers who drink alcohol. The study was published in the journal Addiction.

Though the results are startling, researchers acknowledge limitations; the databases they consulted have spotty information.

Lead author, sociologist David Phillips of the University of California, San Diego, said, “We could not specify the detailed mechanisms and cannot determine whether alcohol is an independent risk factor for SIDS.” In other words, this research doesn’t draw a straight line between alcohol consumption and SIDS, but raises serious concerns about the connection.

“We know that when people are under the influence of alcohol their judgments are impaired and they are not as good at performing tasks. This would include caretaking,” Phillips said.

Incidences of SIDS have gone down since the 1994 launch of the “Back to Sleep” campaign, which urges parents to put babies to sleep on their backs and in safe sleep environments, free of suffocation hazards. But SIDS is still the leading cause of death for babies aged one month to one year.

I have written about SIDS several times; what I find so infuriating is that suffocation (perhaps due to an intoxicated parent) is lumped in with other deaths. There is research going on now, trying to determine whether some babies have a breathing arousal problem that may lead to SIDS. This would be a very different cause of death than accidental suffocation.

Phillips and his colleagues suggest that SIDS investigations include inquiry into recent alcohol consumption on the part of care-givers. I should think so. Why isn’t this in place already? I called the SIDS Alliance several years back and was told that the definition of SIDS differs from state-to-state, sometimes including suffocation, sometimes not.  It would be nice for us worried parents to have someone get in and sort this stuff out.

At base level, new parents can be overwhelmed by the responsibility of a newborn. My husband used to joke, we “just have to keep him alive.” But that’s pretty much how we felt. Despite great efforts to “be rational,” new mothers and fathers often find themselves compulsively checking on their newborn. The specter of SIDS hangs heavy over the nursery. When you read about it — and the endless minutia about risk factors and risk reduction — your normal level of vigilance can flip into high gear. Welcome to the world of parenting in the Age of Information.

But there is some good information out there; Dr. Sears and other advocates for co-sleeping, for example,  have always stated that bed sharing should not be done with an adult who has been drinking or taking any drugs.  Mothers who sleep with their babies are incredibly good at knowing precisely where their babies are and do not roll onto them. Studies have shown an extraordinary ability on a mother’s part to sense these things. But mothers who are very drunk lose that ability. Drunk partners pose a risk for a co-sleeping baby, too.

“The ‘Back to Sleep’ campaign was largely successful,” the authors of this study write. “A similar campaign might now be implemented: There should be increased efforts to inform caretakers that alcohol impairs parental capacity and might be a risk factor for SIDS.”

photo: Anders Adermark/Flickr

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