HANCOCK - What causes sudden infant death syndrome is still a mystery.
Regardless, there are several basic things parents can do that significantly lessen their infant's risk of death.
Colleen Vallad-Hix, a pediatrician at Portage Health, said while they get a few such deaths per year, it's down significantly from what she was seeing when she was in private practice 10 years ago. Nationally, SIDS deaths dropped from a high of 5,634 in 1989 to 2,453 in 2007, according to the National SUID/SIDS Resource Center.
Much of that drop-off came in the 1990s after the introduction of the "Back-To-Sleep" campaign, which encourages parents to put their infants to sleep on their backs, instead of their stomachs.
The practice of placing babies on their backs comes from Hong Kong, where researchers in the 80s noticed dramatically lower rates of SIDS.
"When they went over and observed them with their babies, they discovered they were put to sleep on their backs," Vallad-Hix said.
The Netherlands began a public awareness campaign in 1987; countries such as the United Kingdom, Australia and Sweden soon followed suit.
It may be that sleeping on the back is easier on the airway, Vallad-Hix said.
Another behavior that reduces risk is to avoid putting a lot of beddings in the crib; Vallad-Hix suggested a light blanket and no pillow. Breastfeeding may also offer some protection.
Parents are encouraged to keep their infant in a crib rather than sleeping with them in a common bed. However, Vallad-Hix said, there are some barriers made that can separate children and parents. But even that's inadvisable in certain cases.
"If the parents are on any kind of pain medication that would change their mental alertness, those babies are at risk," she said. "You can't have big fluffy blankets on that bed, either."
Children with neurological impairments or who are premature may be slightly more prone to SIDS. Respiratory syncytial virus, once another leading factor, has largely been dispensed with through a new monthly shot, Vallad-Hix said.
SIDS deaths are almost always within the first six months, Vallad-Hix said.
"After six months, they'll start rolling themselves to determine which position they're going to sleep in," she said.