Health & Science

Study Reveals a Genetic Cause For Some Forms of SIDS

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Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) is a terrifying prospect for new parents, but scientists have uncovered one more cause for SIDS, making it a little less of a mystery. The new research study from the University of Washington shows that some forms of SIDS are caused by a genetic mutation that makes newborns unable to process milk, leading to heart failure due to a buildup of unprocessed fatty material.

This mutation affects the gene HADHA, and having it means that infants can’t metabolize the lipids (fats, fatty acids, and cholesterol) found in milk. Scientists haven’t come up with a treatment for the genetic mutation yet, but they are looking into potential drugs that could help infants. Prospective parents can currently be screened for the genetic mutation to see if there’s a chance they could pass it along to a baby.

One of the University of Washington researchers, Hannele Ruohola-Baker, knew a family devastated by SIDS in Finland, and ever since has been interested in learning more about the causes of the syndrome. “It’s very exciting to think that our work may contribute to future treatments, and help for the heartbreak for the parents who find their children have these mutations,” she said.

There are still ways to reduce the risk of SIDS.

There are many other known causes of SIDS, and many of them are environmental—meaning they can be controlled. One of the main ways parents and caregivers can help prevent SIDS is to create safe sleeping conditions for babies. Unfortunately, a recent government study revealed that many parents aren’t following key safety guidelines when it comes to sleep. The CDC recommends:

  • Placing a baby on their back for sleeping
  • Using a firm mattress with fitted sheet
  • Keeping the crib or bassinet in the parents’ room until the child is at least 6 months old
  • Avoiding having blankets, pillows, bumper pads, or soft toys in the crib
  • Making sure your baby doesn’t get too hot
  • Offering your baby a pacifier for naps and bedtime

Other health considerations have a big impact on SIDS rates too. Parents can also reduce the risk of SIDS by following these guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics:

  • Not smoking during pregnancy or around pregnant people or babies
  • Not drinking or using illegal drugs during pregnancy
  • Bringing your baby to the doctor for regular checkups and immunizations
  • Breastfeeding

Of course breastfeeding exclusively for a long period of time isn’t always a realistic goal for new parents, but a 2017 study showed that breastfeeding for just a few months, even if combined with formula, can reduce the risk of SIDS significantly.



Joanna Eng is a freelance writer and editor, Lambda Literary Fellow, and co-founder of Dandelions, a parenting and social justice newsletter. She lives with her wife and child in the New York City area, where she is constantly seeking out slivers of nature. You can find her on Twitter @joannamengland.