Sudden infant death syndrome is a nightmare for parents who have experienced it. Also known as crib death, roughly 3,400 babies die from SIDS annually in the U.S. alone – making up 37% of sudden unexpected infant deaths – and researchers have long struggled to understand what drives it and how it might be more effectively prevented.
Since it usually occurs when a baby is sleeping, SIDS is closely connected to pediatric obstructive sleep apnea. In most cases of an apneic episode in both children and adults, when the body becomes sufficiently starved of oxygen, the person will at least partially awake, gasping for breath. But a few babies simply don’t wake up to breathe, and end up suffocating in their sleep.
Now scientists think they have identified a contributing factor. In a recent study, researchers compared blood samples from babies that dies from SIDS and other unknown causes to the blood of 655 babies in a control group. They found that the children who died from SIDS were deficient in an enzyme called butyrylcholinesterase (BChE). This particular enzyme is part of the autonomic system, which controls functions like blood pressure and breathing. Simple version: a shortage of this particular enzyme could make some babies predisposed to SIDS.
While experts welcomed the discovery, they’re also moving with an abundance of caution, saying that this is only one piece of the puzzle. There’s plenty more that can contribute to a baby’s susceptibility to SIDS, such as premature birth and exposure to tobacco smoke. In addition, it’s going to take time to develop a screening test for BChE in infants. But this breakthrough can, at a minimum, reassure parents who have lost children to SIDS that their baby’s death wasn’t their fault.