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SIDS 'may have a genetic link'

WebMD UK Health News
Medically Reviewed by Dr Farah Ahmed

29th March 2018 – Babies who die from cot death are more likely to have rare genetic mutations that cause them to have weaker breathing muscles, according to a new study.

Cot death, or sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), is the unexpected death of a seemingly healthy young child. It is the leading cause of deaths among babies, typically between 2 and 4 months old, in high-income countries. Around 232 babies and toddlers die each year in the UK.

It is not known why some babies die suddenly from SIDS, but babies being unable to regulate their breathing is thought to be an important condition.

The latest research suggests a possible genetic element to the disorder.

However, the researchers stress that further investigations are needed to understand the link, and whether medication might be suitable to prevent baby deaths.

Breathing regulation

Researchers in the UK and the US looked at the prevalence of mutations in the SCN4A gene which helps regulate the muscular control of breathing. These mutations are rare but have been linked to a number of conditions including life-threatening pauses in breathing and vocal cord spasms that make breathing hard.

The study included 278 children from the US and the UK of Caucasian European ancestry who had died from SIDS. These were matched against 729 adults with no history of heart, respiratory or neurological disease.

A genetic analysis from tissue samples found that 4 of the children who had died from SIDS had mutations associated with disruption of the breathing muscles, compared to none in the control group.

The authors suggest that this genetic mutation may increase the risk of SIDS, leaving babies with weaker breathing muscles, and more susceptible to other contributory factors such as tobacco smoke, getting tangled in bedding, a minor illness, or a breathing obstruction.

The authors of the study, published in the medical journal The Lancet, stress that the gene mutation is probably not the sole cause of death, and that safe sleeping measures for babies are still essential to ensure safety.

Back to Sleep campaign

Rates of SIDS have fallen by 81% in the UK since the Back to Sleep message was launched in 1991, encouraging parents to lay babies on their backs and not face down.

Commenting on the latest study in an emailed statement, Francine Bates, chief executive of the Lullaby Trust, says: "We are very pleased that leading researchers continue to try and identify the cause of SIDS, which leads to the death of around four babies every week in the UK.

"This research suggests there may be a genetic component that increases the risk of SIDS in some cases. However, larger studies, including genetic testing of the parents, are needed before we can understand how much of a contribution mutations such as those affecting the SCN4A gene make to SIDS.

"In the meantime, we urge all parents to continue to follow our safer sleep advice to reduce the risk of SIDS: always place your baby on their back, in their own cot or Moses basket, in the same room as you for all sleeps, day and night."

Reviewed on March 29, 2018

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