New Test Has the Potential to Identify Babies at Risk For SIDS Before It's Too Late

Doctors in Australia may have discovered a way to evaluate newborns for their risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. This scientific breakthrough not only has possibly identified a cause of SIDS, but finally a way to screen for it.

A major factor in why SIDS — the unexplained death of a baby, typically when they are asleep — is so frightening to parents is because the cause is unknown, but this new study has found that babies who have died from this tragedy have lower levels of a specific protein.

Orexin is believed to stir babies when they are deprived of oxygen, and researchers discovered that babies who suffer from SIDS had up to 21 percent less of this protein in their brains. During the 11-year study, 46 babies who died were examined and 27 of these babies had passed away from SIDS. These brains were compared to the others from babies of the same age who died from non-SIDS related causes.

The reduced levels of this "waking-up protein" puts babies at risk if they roll over because they will be more vulnerable when sleeping on their stomachs. Instead of being roused to turn if they are becoming deprived of oxygen, these babies have a higher chance of not waking.

To help combat this risk, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that babies sleep in the same room as their parents for at least the first 6 months and optimally until they are a year old to help prevent sleep-related infant deaths.

According to Dr. Rita Machaalani, manager of the sleep unit of the Children's Hospital at Westmead in Sydney, the study's findings have the potential to lead to a nasal spray that would increase orexin levels in infants. "For many of the families, particularly those who follow all the guidelines, this sort of finding shows there is something wrong with their child, that it is not something they did, and that must give them a bit of comfort," said Machaalani.

Although this brings new hope for possibly understanding the cause and being able to prevent SIDS, Francine Bates, chief executive of charity The Lullaby Trust notes the study's small sample size. "At this stage we therefore remain cautious to the suggestion that this is a 'breakthrough' and a blood screening test is imminent," Bates said.