IRVINE — Research conducted at UC Irvine suggests that sudden infant death syndrome, a mysterious killer of thousands of babies each year, may be prevented if mothers share their beds with their infants.
Sarah Mosko, an associate professor of neurology and the lead researcher, sounded a cautious note about the findings but she and other SIDS experts said the report marked a critical step in examining new ways to prevent occurrence of the syndrome.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday January 14, 1997 Orange County Edition Metro Part B Page 3 Zones Desk 1 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
SIDS--Sudden infant death syndrome cases have decreased because parents have followed instructions to make sure their infants sleep on their backs, not their stomachs. The information was incorrect in a Times article Thursday.
Mosko's study showed that bed-sharing, common among Latinos and other ethnic groups, may prevent long episodes of deep sleep, known as "stage 3/4." During this period, infants, particularly those 11 to 15 weeks old, are most vulnerable to SIDS, which scientists believe occurs when infants inexplicably stop breathing and die.
Normally, when breathing ceases, the oxygen-depleted brain arouses the sleeper and breathing resumes. Although the cause of SIDS is not known, many scientists believe that it involves an inability of the brain to wake up the sleeper.
The study, published in the current issue of the medical journal Sleep, does not recommend that parents immediately adopt the practice, and independent experts who hailed the research were more cautious than the authors about its conclusions.
For one thing, said Marianne Willinger, a renowned SIDS expert not involved in the research, more study is needed to assess the risk of a parent inadvertently turning and crushing the infant--something that the UC Irvine researchers said never occurred among the 35 women who were studied.
Willinger, who specializes in SIDS research at the National Institute for Child Health and Development, said the authors' conclusion that sharing a bed may guard against SIDS "may be a stretch" that would need to be corroborated with further investigation, something Mosko acknowledges.
"The bed-sharing environment has to have certain constraints," Willinger said, noting that previous studies have indicated that mothers who smoke and share their bed with their infants appear to pass on toxins to their babies through either exhaling or the tobacco residue on their clothing.
Still, Willinger praised the study as a first-of-a-kind look at the phenomena of bed-sharing that opens a new and significant front in SIDS research.
"It's an important beginning for looking at infant sleep" and SIDS, said Willinger, who added that researchers at the institute planned to meet this week to review the data. "It's a critical issue."
Mosko said bed-sharing is more common in Latin America and some Asian cultures where interdependence among children and parents is more prevalent. In the United States and other Western industrialized nations, she said, the practice is not as common because "we put a premium on favoring immediately, or as soon as possible, the independence of the infant."
Also, taboos have developed in the past 200 years or so against parents and children sharing a bed because it is discouraged by some religions, Mosko said.
All 35 of the subjects in her study, done with colleagues Christopher Richard, James McKenna and Sean Drummond, were Latinas.
Of the 35 mother-infant pairs, 20 routinely shared a bed at least five nights a week, while 15 shared beds less often.
In a companion study led by Richard, researchers found that mothers and babies spent most of the night on their sides, facing each other with about eight inches between them--a position the authors suggested facilitates breast-feeding and discourages the infant from lying face down. Breast-feeding is thought to reduce SIDS risk while the face-down position is known to increase it.
Prone sleeping has lead to a reduction in SIDS deaths nationally from 6,000 to about 4,200, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.