Forget to breathe. What is known about the incurable syndrome that kills newborns in their sleep

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They forget to breathe. What is known about the incurable syndrome that kills newborns in their sleep

Dozens of babies die in their sleep every year, and scientists still don't know why.

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In 2020, 2,800 babies died from sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) in the US alone. Scientists still do not know why this happens, but there are several hypotheses, writes Real Clear Science.

According to lead SIDS researcher and specialist in pediatric palliative care at Bristol Children's Hospital and Harvard Medical School Richard Goldstein, SIDS is not something specific. In fact, this is just a description of the result when a seemingly perfectly healthy child falls asleep and dies in his sleep for no reason.

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However, there are several hypotheses why this can happen to babies.

Triple risk model

Triple risk model

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One of the leading theories of SIDS suggests that this happens as a result of three key criteria that appear simultaneously:

  1. the infant has an underlying anomaly that prevents it from responding to low blood oxygen or high carbon dioxide levels;
  2. exposure to a trigger event, such as sleeping face down;
  3. vulnerable stage of development (first six months of life).

In simple terms, researchers believe that in the first six months of life, babies are sometimes exposed to low levels of oxygen or high levels of carbon dioxide in their blood. Healthy babies tend to wake up, change positions and start breathing faster to replenish oxygen, but newborns with SIDS do not wake up and die in their sleep.

George Christos hypothesis

This hypothesis was was first voiced almost 30 years ago by a scientist from Curtin University (Australia) George Christos. He suggests that in extremely rare cases, infantile dreams can cause SIDS.

Christos suggests that in the first months of life, a newborn may dream that he is in the womb, where he does not need to breathe. As a result, physical actions can lead to the baby's breathing stopping, and death.

As early as 1993, Christos backed up his claims with numerous pieces of evidence. For example, when people dream that they are suffocating in their sleep, they can imitate in real life. Or when dreaming that a person urinates in a dream, he can do it in real life in bed. The scientists also cited a study by Stanford colleagues as evidence. Then the results showed that when the test subject dreams of swimming underwater, he actually holds his breath.

The researcher suggests that newborns may lack the neural circuits that would allow them to wake up at that moment. As a result, a baby who dreams that he is again in the womb when he is not breathing, and he stops breathing in reality.

As further evidence, Christos cites another fact – some adults suffer from behavioral disorder during REM sleep, when the body is usually paralyzed, for example, sleep paralysis. The fact is that adults spend only about two hours in REM sleep, while babies spend about 8 hours. The scientist suggests that at an early age in newborns, memories of the womb may prevail – as a result, babies with REM sleep disorders can stop their breathing, as if reproducing their embryonic life.

However, the main problem is that there is no ethical way to confirm or disprove any of these theories. The researchers note that it is impossible to watch hundreds of babies under EEG scanners over hundreds of nights to see if one of them will die during REM sleep.

Instead, scientists suggest simply taking this theory into account and using it as a guide to preventing the syndrome. Christos recommended to parents of newborns:

  • put babies to sleep on their backs and avoid sleeping on their stomachs (at which point they tend to cringe in the fetal position) to prevent dreams where they are are in the womb;
  • do not wrap up newborns too much – too hot environment can also imitate the mother's womb.

Note that such recommendations were voiced not only by Christos, but also by the American Academy of Pediatrics. As a result, infant deaths during sleep have been reduced from 155 cases per 100,000 newborns in 1990 to 90 cases in 2022.