Every year, more than 2,300 babies die suddenly and without explanation before their first birthday. The cause of death is listed as Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), which is every parent’s worst nightmare.
Now, scientists writing in the Journal of the American Medical Association are saying that inadequate levels of the messenger hormone, serotonin, may be to blame as it’s essential in regulating breathing, sleep, and heart rate.
Researchers at Harvard Medical School and Children’s Hospital Boston, which conducted the NIH-funded study, say this brain defect makes some infants more vulnerable when sleeping on their side or tummy.
“When the infant is breathing in the facedown position, he or she may not get enough oxygen. An infant with a normal brain stem would turn his or her head and wake up in response. But a baby with an intrinsic abnormality is unable to respond to the stressor,” said lead researcher Dr. Hannah Kinney.
In this study, serotonin levels measured 26 percent lower in babies who died of SIDS than those who died of other causes. Low levels of an enzyme needed to make serotonin, tryptophan hydroxylase, were also measured. Researchers hope to develop a test to identify babies at risk for SIDS. Until that time, the only safe way to put a baby to sleep is on his or her back in a cool room and in a crib without loose or gathered bedding, pillows, or toys.