Study Suggests Drinking by Caregivers May Play a Role in Sudden Infant Death Syndrome
By Salynn Boyles
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD
Dec. 17, 2010 -- New Year's Day brings a dramatic spike in cases of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), and researchers say New Year's Eve drinking by caregivers may be to blame.
An analysis of almost 130,000 SIDS cases nationwide over more than three decades revealed a 33% increase in deaths on New Year's Day.
More babies die of SIDS on New Year's Day than on any other day of the year, University of California, San Diego sociology professor David Phillips, PhD, tells WebMD.
He says the research, published online in the journal Addiction, is the first nationwide study to explore a possible connection between caregiver alcohol consumption and SIDS deaths.
"We are not saying that alcohol alone explains SIDS, but it may be one mechanism in many," Phillips says. "A parent who is under the influence of alcohol may be less careful about putting their child to sleep or less attentive to signs of distress during the night."
Decrease in SIDS Deaths
Despite a 50% reduction in SIDS deaths in the U.S. since the mid-1990s, SIDS remains the leading killer of babies between the ages of 1 month and 1 year.
The decrease in deaths is largely attributed to education efforts stressing the importance of putting babies to sleep on their backs. Back sleeping and keeping pillows, heavy quilts, and stuffed toys out of cribs were the major messages of the "Back to Sleep" campaign -- a joint effort of federal health officials and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).
Despite this effort, many SIDS deaths are still blamed on unsafe sleeping environments, but Phillips says the impact of caregiver impairment due to alcohol use has not been well studied.
In his study, Phillips and colleagues examined 129,090 SIDS deaths from 1973 until 2006.
They compared the expected number of deaths on New Year's Day vs. the observed number. They also estimated alcohol consumption among the population as a whole by examining data on alcohol-related motor vehicle crashes.
Their analysis suggested that the largest spikes in both alcohol consumption and in SIDS occur on New Year's.
The study does not prove a link between alcohol and SIDS, since no information on alcohol consumption by adults caring for babies who died was available.
But Phillips says the possible role of alcohol and drug use by caregivers in SIDS has not gotten enough attention.
"This is the leading cause of death after the first month and up until the first year of life," he says. "It is important to fully explore the behavioral variables that may be involved."
Pediatrician and SIDS researcher Rachel Y. Moon, MD, tells WebMD that while alcohol may be a factor in some SIDS deaths, it is one of many risk factors.
Moon, who is with the Children's National Medical Center in Washington, D.C., served on the AAP task force that last updated the group's policy statement on SIDS.
Moon says the study does not provide many answers about the role of alcohol in SIDS deaths, and she called the methodology "unusual."
"Usually in SIDS studies we compared babies who died of SIDS to those who didn't," she says. "This study looked at dates and estimated what the alcohol use was and then somehow tried to relate that to SIDS."
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