The number of babies who die of SIDS, or sudden infant death syndrome increases by one third, or 33% on New Year’s Day and the believed cause is excessive alcohol consumption by caretakers the night before. SIDS is the sudden death of an infant under one year of age which remains unexplained after a thorough case investigation, including performance of a complete autopsy, examination of the death scene, and review of the clinical history. Also known as “crib death” and “cot death” because it strikes seemingly healthy babies in their sleep, SIDS is usually ruled the cause of death only when other causes are ruled out.

In a typical situation parents check on their supposedly sleeping infant to find him or her dead. This is the worst tragedy parents can face, a tragedy which leaves them with sadness and a feeling of vulnerability that lasts throughout their lives. Since medicine cannot tell them why their baby died, they blame themselves and often other innocent people. Their lives and those around them are changed forever.

In the first of its kind, a study conducted by David Phillips and colleagues at the University of California, San Diego examined 129,090 SIDS cases from 1973 to 2006 using three nationwide datasets: computerized death certificates, the linked birth and infant death dataset, and the Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS). This research is published in the journal Addiction.

Since 1983, the rate of SIDS has fallen by over 50 percent and is currently at an all time low, however there are still about 2,500 deaths per year in the United States, and thousands more throughout the world.

Though SIDS has decreased even more dramatically since the 1994 launch of the “Back to Sleep” campaign, which urges caregivers to put infants on their backs to sleep, among other safe-sleep recommendations, SIDS continues to be the leading cause of death for children aged 1 month to 1 year.

New Year’s more than any other day of the year, alcohol consumption rises, and so does SIDS. There is also a noticeable increase on weekends in both. The SIDS death rate is abnormally high for children of alcohol-consuming mothers. Babies of mothers who drink are more than twice as likely to die of SIDS.

The study also found a rise in SIDS just after “4/20,” a counterculture celebration of cannabis annually on April 20, and after July 4, when high alcohol and drug use occurs, though the rise on neither of these dates is as dramatic as on New Year’s.

Then authors also checked to see what happens during the autumn shift to daylight savings, when many sleep later because an hour has been added to the day to determine if oversleeping may be the cause of the increased death rate in infants, and not extreme alcohol abuse. Philips determined there was no rise in SIDS attributed to these dates.

There are some limitations to the study, the authors point out. Large datasets contain very little information per case. The study doesn’t, and can’t, point definitively to alcohol consumption as a cause of SIDS, but the obvious connections are concerning. Philips states:

    “We could not specify the detailed mechanisms and cannot determine whether alcohol is an independent risk factor for SIDS, a risk factor only in conjunction with other factors or a proxy for risks associated with occasions when consumption increases. We know that when people are under the influence of alcohol their judgments are impaired and they are not as good at performing tasks; this would include caretaking.”

It is not unreasonable to suggest that SIDS investigations inquire about the recent alcohol consumption of an infant’s caretakers, and that pediatricians advise new parents that alcohol impairs their abilities and may endanger their children.

The authors continue:

    “The ‘Back to Sleep’ campaign was largely successful. A similar campaign might now be implemented: There should be increased efforts to inform caretakers that alcohol impairs parental capacity and might be a risk factor for SIDS.”

The Back to Sleep campaign began in 1994 as a way to educate parents, caregivers, and health care providers about ways to reduce the risk for Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. The campaign was named for its recommendation to place healthy babies on their backs to sleep. Placing babies on their backs to sleep reduces the risk for SIDS. This campaign has been successful in promoting infant back sleeping and other risk-reduction strategies to parents, family members, child care providers, health professionals, and all other caregivers of infants.

This campaign was sponsored by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), the Maternal and Child Health Bureau of the Health Resources and Services Administration, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), First Candle/SIDS Alliance, and the Association of SIDS and Infant Mortality Programs.

Phillips’ coauthors are Kimberly M. Brewer and Paul Wadensweiler of UC San Diego.

Written by Sy Kraft, B.A.