The first large-scale U.S. study to compare the use of alcohol by parents or caregivers and their newborns’ risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) has found that parents’ alcohol impairment may increase their babies’ risk of this rare but shocking cause of death.
Although SIDS is estimated to occur an average seven times per day throughout the entire U.S., the researchers found that SIDS still contributes to a significant percentage of all infant deaths. After reviewing death certificates of American infants between 1973 and 2006, the researchers discovered that SIDS was the cause of death in nearly one-third of all cases (129,090 SIDS-related deaths and 295,151 non-SIDS-related deaths). To model how often alcohol is consumed by adults at night throughout the year, the researchers looked at U.S. records from 1994 and 2008 of all nighttime alcohol-related vehicular fatalities that involved persons of any age (a total of 135,946 accidents). Because of SIDS’ high prevalence among infant deaths, researchers from the University of California, San Diego sought to discover whether alcohol use by adults was a risk factor for the syndrome during this time period.
Several associations between alcohol consumption among parents or caretakers and the fatal syndrome among babies were uncovered. During their investigation, lead researcher Dr. David Phillips and colleagues found that SIDS was significantly more likely to occur on the weekend than on a weekday, and that 33% of all SIDS cases occurred during the New Year’s Day holiday—a time when adults are likely to consume more alcohol than usual. Also, babies of alcohol-consuming mothers were more than twice as likely to die of SIDS as babies born to non-alcohol-consuming mothers.
The national rate of SIDS began to drop after 1994—when the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development first started promoting a campaign to teach parents about several safety precautions they should be taking when putting their babies to sleep—such as laying babies on their backs rather than their sides or stomachs, limiting the amounts of blankets and pillows in the baby’s crib, and not allowing babies to sleep in the same bed as adults—in order to reduce the risk of suffocation. Yet after concluding their findings, the researchers suggest that when intoxicated, parents or caretakers may be less capable of paying attention to such safety precautions for their small children. Alcohol use is known to hinder cognitive performance, as in delaying reaction speed or impairing memory, so parents under the influence of alcohol are harming their ability to properly care for their children. The researchers indicate that alcohol use by caretakers and the risk of SIDS may be more related than previously understood.
However, the researchers do surmise that further research into alcohol use’s relationship to SIDS is needed, such as inquiring parents and caretakers about their recent alcohol use, and determining both biological and environmental risk factors related to alcohol use that could play a role in the infant’s death. In the meantime, the researchers hope that their latest findings will persuade family doctors and other pediatric physicians to discuss the safety measures that parents should take to reduce or prevent the risk of SIDS, like avoiding alcohol consumption.
The researchers’ latest study is available online in the journal Addiction.
Source: Reuters Health, Zach Gottlieb, Parents’ drinking may be risk factor for SIDS, September 28, 2010