- It is the first genetic link to cot death that directly involves a baby’s breathing
- The defect affects respiratory muscles, making it hard for babies to breathe
- The findings could pave the way for special treatment for infants most at risk
- Cot death kills more than 200 children under the age of one every year in the UK
Cot deaths could be caused by a faulty gene, research suggests.
British scientists say the rare defect makes babies’ respiratory muscles weaker, meaning they find it harder to regulate their breathing.
It is the first genetic link to cot death that directly involves a baby’s breathing. The findings could pave the way for a screening programme or drug treatment for infants most at risk, the researchers say.
The exact cause of cot death is not known but growing evidence suggests that safer sleeping practices – such as putting babies on their backs – significantly reduces the risk
ot death, also known as sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), kills more than 200 children under the age of one every year in the UK
Campaigners last year argued that putting babies to sleep in a simple cardboard box would reduce the risk of cot death
Cot death, also known as sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), kills more than 200 children under the age of one every year in the UK.
The exact cause is not known but growing evidence suggests that safer sleeping practices – such as putting babies on their backs – significantly reduce the risk.
Scientists from University College London were alerted to a possible genetic link by a number of SIDS cases involving babies with respiratory problems, and parents with neuromuscular diseases.
These diseases, such as periodic paralysis and myasthenic syndrome – which results in muscle weakness – can severely affect breathing but can be treated with medication.
Working with the University of California in Los Angeles, researchers looked at 278 cases of SIDS in the UK and US, focusing on mutations in a gene known as SCN4A.
Typically, SCN4A mutations are rare, occurring in fewer than five people in every 100,000. But the study uncovered harmful mutant versions of the gene in four of the cot death victims.
Tests on the mutation revealed it significantly impaired the function of muscles used during breathing.
Study leader Professor Michael Hanna, from the UCL Institute of Neurology, said it was a ‘significant discovery’.
He added: ‘Our study is the first to link a genetic cause of weaker breathing muscles with sudden infant death syndrome and suggests that genes controlling breathing muscle function could be important in this condition.’
Those with the faulty gene may be at particular risk of cot death, the researchers suggest.
But they stress that this is unlikely to be the sole cause and that the study, published in the medical journal The Lancet, does not change advice about safe sleeping practice.
However, it could pave the way for genetic testing of parents before they conceive. Babies could also be put on medications used to treat neuromuscular diseases during the most risky time, usually between two and six months.
DO’S AND DONT’S TO REDUCE YOUR BABY’S RISK OF SIDS
- Always place your baby on their back to sleep.
- Place your baby in the ‘feet to foot’ position (with their feet touching the end of the cot, Moses basket, or pram).
- Keep your baby’s head uncovered. Their blanket should be tucked in no higher than their shoulders.
- Let your baby sleep in a cot or Moses basket in the same room as you for the first six months.
- Use a mattress that’s firm, flat, waterproof and in good condition.
- Breastfeed your baby (if you can).
- Smoke during pregnancy or let anyone smoke in the same room as your baby (both before and after birth).
- Sleep on a bed, sofa or armchair with your baby.
- Share a bed with your baby if you or your partner smoke or take drugs, or if you’ve been drinking alcohol.
- Let your baby get too hot or too cold. A room temperature of 16-20C, with light bedding or a lightweight baby sleeping bag, will provide a comfortable sleeping environment.
Source: NHS Choices