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The causes of sudden infant death syndrome, formerly known as "crib death," remain elusive to medical researchers.

SIDS is the sudden, unpredictable death of an infant without evidence of organic disease. It occurs most frequently at 2 to 4 months of age and usually occurs at night or during naptime.Although SIDS incidents occur in all levels of our society, there are current suspicions and circumstantial evidence indicating that it occurs more often among lower socioeconomic class populations, among illicit drug abusers and among low birth-weight infants.

SIDS is believed to kill about 7,000 American infants each year, but until proper studies are undertaken, the true incidence of SIDS cannot be known.

It would be nice to believe that medical researchers are closing in on the exact cause or causes of SIDS. But it will be some time before any real progress will be made to explain - and then to prevent - the illness.

The first step in uncovering the mystery surrounding sudden infant death syndrome would be to rigidly define the criteria for including a sudden and unexpected death in infancy in the SIDS category.

Detailed autopsy and toxologic studies as well as a thorough forensic investigation of circumstances surrounding death must be a minimum requirement before that death is relegated to the SIDS classification.

Some researchers have proposed that SIDS victims had immature breathing mechanisms that respond poorly to increased carbon dioxide concentrations in the bloodstream, resulting in periods of apnea, or cessation of breathing for a short time.

Also, studies have shown no connection between incidence of SIDS and the time infants get their first DPT (diphtheria-pertussis-tetanus) immunization shots.

For a few years, parents were encouraged to purchase breathing monitors that would sound an alarm if an infant stopped breathing. However, the use of these monitors did not reduce the occurrence of SIDS, and the popularity of these electronic devices waned.

European reports of a high incidence of SIDS among infants who sleep on their stomachs require further study and confirmation.

Until a diagnostic test can be devised for breathing control immaturity or the genetic disorder that may cause it, there is little parents can do to prevent SIDS, beyond getting appropriate prenatal care.

But there is no doubt that SIDS is a devastating condition that leaves parents grief-stricken and requires great delicacy and caring by the investigating physician and authorities.

SIDS, however, is a legitimate subject for study and research - and the only way in which it will be clearly defined, its mysteries unraveled and its tragic consequences prevented.