Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), also referred to as cot death, is the term given to the sudden and unexpected death of a baby for no apparent reason during their sleep.
The term will never be used if a baby dies from a specific or known cause, such as an accident, an illness, or as a direct result of premature birth or a congenital abnormality.
When a baby dies from SIDS a full investigation is carried out including a post mortem examination, a thorough search of the place where the baby died and a review of the baby's medical notes.
Babies who die from SIDS are usually under six months old. In the UK, around 300 babies die suddenly and unexpectedly every year*.
Most typically the baby is found dead at home, either first thing in the morning or after a nap during the day.
It can occur when the baby is left sleeping for only a brief period of time in a cot or a pram. Statistics show that SIDS is more common in the winter, although the reasons for this are not yet fully understood.
It is not yet fully understood why SIDS happens. The baby may stop breathing as a result of one or a combination of different infective, circulatory, bio-chemical or immunological abnormalities.
It has been suggested that certain babies have a problem with the part of the brain that controls breathing and waking, so they don't respond normally to a breathing challenge such as their bedclothes covering their airways.
Cot death can affect any family, although it is very rare for it to occur twice in the same family.
It is also unclear why the rate of cot death is highest for babies of mothers aged under 20 at the time of the child's birth.
There are groups which statistics show are at higher risk of cot death:
There are no rules a parent can follow to completely avoid a cot death. However, there are some suggestions which can be followed which can help.
In 1991, the foundation for the Study of Infant Deaths (FSID) in Britain now the Lullaby Trust, launched a campaign to reduce the risk of cot death, which has cut the number of cot deaths by 70%. See our baby sleep safety guidelines for the latest advice on sleep safety.
The shock to parents whose babies die suddenly and inexplicably is obviously profound. They should be given the opportunity to see and hold their baby after death has been confirmed and they will need support to deal with the necessary official enquiries and funeral arrangements.
Strong support from their doctor is very important and if a paediatrician has been involved in the care of the baby it may be helpful to talk to them.
Parents at first experience disbelief, followed by deep grief. Some feel guilt that they were not present when their baby died as though their absence was some kind of neglect.
Many parents feel angry and this can be directed at each other, at professionals who had previously seen the child or even their other children.
Friends and relatives need to allow the parents to talk and work their way through the grieving process. In some cases parents may need further counselling or psychiatric help.
**Source: Lullaby Trust