New SIDS Registry Tracks Clues to Infant Deaths

An infant in the neonatal intensive care unit at the University of Chicago's Comer Children's Hospital on Feb. 19, 2014. Martha Irvine / AP, file

A death registry for infants may help researchers get a better handle on how many babies die each year from SIDS and other causes, a new government study suggests.

Sudden unexpected infant death (SUID) accounts for one in three deaths in children aged 1 month to 1 year, explained the study’s lead author, Carrie Shapiro-Mendoza, a senior scientist in the division of reproductive health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“It’s the leading cause of death in infants of this age,” she said.

Shapiro-Mendoza and her colleagues developed a new classification system to help medical examiners and coroners provide a more accurate description of the circumstances of each infant death.

“Right now there’s a lot of confusion, or lack of standard practice, among medical examiners and coroners when they’re deciding whether to call it SIDS or suffocation,” Shapiro-Mendoza said.

The hope is the new system will give a clearer picture of infant deaths. And that, Shapiro-Mendoza said, might help researchers learn more about the causes of these SUIDs, and perhaps come up with ways to prevent future deaths.

Once researchers have a better handle on how many deaths can be explained, they can start to look for reasons for the unexplained deaths. “Maybe we need to look at biological or medical factors,” Shapiro-Mendoza said.

Currently, SIDS is a “garbage diagnosis” that is used when the cause of death is unknown, said Dr. Marlyn Woo, a professor of pediatric pulmonology at the Mattel Children’s Hospital, UCLA. “With all these cases being labeled as SIDS, you can’t really home in on the cause of this epidemic. And you can’t learn how to identify those children who are at risk and find measures to prevent it.”

The new research will go a long way to helping scientists to find answers, Woo said.

“Thank goodness the federal government got involved and funded this classification system,” she added.