In 2015, 1,600 babies died from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). Even though this figure is a very small portion of the overall infant population (about four million babies are born in the U.S. each year), the fear of SIDS keeps many new parents checking the baby monitor all night. That's because despite so many advances in medical research, there is so little knowledge about what causes SIDS.
Since safe sleep practices appear to contribute to decreased SIDS risk, some researchers are studying the best ways to communicate safe sleep practices to parents. In the Social Media and Risk Reduction Training (SMART) Trial, Researchers from Boston University, Yale University, and the University of Virginia studied how e-mail and text reminder to postpartum mothers influences safe sleep practices. Mothers who received the messages for 60 days exhibited safer sleep practices. They were more likely to lay their children on their backs to sleep, to share rooms but not beds with their babies, to not use soft bedding, and to use pacifiers.
This study suggests that if doctors reach out to new parents where they are (on the phone, often trapped under nursing or sleeping babies), they'll be more successful at influencing parental behavior.
Another technological innovation is providing healthcare workers with the best possible information to pass onto parents.
The story is at turns heartbreaking and heartwarming. John Kahan, a manager at Microsoft, lost his son Aaron to SIDS in 2003. Since then, Kahan began leading hikes to raise money for SIDS research. 13 years later, in honor of what would have been Aaron's bat mitzvah, Kahan hiked Mt. Kilimanjaro. When he returned, his coworkers surprised him with a project they had been working on during their off hours: a machine learning tool designed to notice patterns in SIDS cases that individual humans may have difficulty identifying.
When we think about SIDS, we tend to focus on the first three terrifying words: "Sudden Infant Death." But that last word – "Syndrome" – explains why the mystery of SIDS has gone unsolved. A syndrome is defined as a collection of symptoms. In the case of SIDS, it's not entirely clear what those symptoms are. A computer algorithm that can look at dozens of factors may help illuminate what factors cause SIDS.
Microsoft's machine learning tool is studying 90 different factors across 29 million patient records collected between 2004 and 2010. Microsoft has donated both the tool and two years of cloud computing to Seattle Children's Hospital, where researchers are further investigating risk factors already thought to increase risk for SIDS. One exciting result of the program is that it has already confirmed what researchers already know: Babies whose mothers smoke are at an increased risk for SIDS.
This confirmation of smoking risk suggests that the tool is accurate, and will be a valuable way of identifying other risk factors. So far, the new SIDS tool has suggested that babies whose mothers did not have first trimester prenatal care are at an increased risk for SIDS.
The combination of robust research tools like Microsoft's and text message campaigns like that at BU, Yale, and UVA could have an huge impact on the SIDS rate in the U.S. These innovations can both pinpoint possible risk factors for SIDS and make parents more aware of those risk factors.
If you want to contribute to SIDS research, you can make a donation to Seattle Children's SIDS Research Fellow Fund. The Kahan family is matching donations up to $50,000.