Doctors discover possible cause of sudden and unexplainable toddler deaths

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Written By Rivera Claudia

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  • Videos revealed kids were having seizures within 30 minutes prior to death
  • Researchers called this a ‘smoking gun’ that may explain sudden child deaths
  • READ MORE:  Infant mortality rose by 3% in 2022

Video recordings of babies in their cribs could be a key in revealing the cause of sudden and unexplainable childhood deaths. 

Researchers from New York University have identified brief seizures accompanied by muscle convulsions as a potential cause for sudden deaths in toddlers. 

The study, published in the journal Neurology, looked at cases of sudden unexplained death in childhood (SUDC), analyzing medical records and videos of children sleeping that were supplied by families. 

The videos revealed children having seizures lasting less than 60 seconds and occurring within 30 minutes prior to their death. 

SUDC is a category of death in children 12 to 18 months old that remains unexplained after a thorough investigation, including an autopsy. A coroner may rule a child’s death SUDC after completing an investigation and finding no other cause of death. 

The above shows the top ten leading causes of infant deaths and whether they have risen or fallen in 2022 (light blue) compared to 2021 (dark blue)

The above shows the top ten leading causes of infant deaths and whether they have risen or fallen in 2022 (light blue) compared to 2021 (dark blue)

With SUDC, most often a child will go to sleep and never wake up. There is no known cause or prevention. 

Because of the varying methods of investigations and the way deaths are certified, it is not known how often the condition occurs, but statistics show approximately 2,900 children younger than four years old die from unknown causes in the US each year. 

NYU researchers estimate there are 400 SUDC cases per year in the US, occurring mostly during sleep and about half of the deaths happen in children one to three years old. 

For the study, researchers from New York looked at 300 cases of SUDC where there was no definitive cause of death.

They identified seven cases containing home video of the child’s last sleep period before their death. Each video was assessed by eight doctors for movement and sound.  

Videos reviewed by the team included those from security systems or commercial crib cameras. 

The team observed the children convulsing between eight and 50 seconds.  

Five of the toddlers died shortly after movements deemed to be brief seizures by forensic pathologists, a seizure specialist and a sleep specialist.

Researchers also believe a sixth child who died from SUDC also had a seizure.

Study lead investigator Laura Gould, whose own daughter died of SUDC at 15 months old, said: ‘Our study, although small, offers the first direct evidence that seizures may be responsible for some sudden deaths in children, which are usually unwitnessed during sleep.’

Study senior investigator and neurologist Orrin Devinsky added: ‘These study findings show that seizures are much more common than patients’ medical histories suggest, and that further research is needed to determine if seizures are frequent occurrences in sleep-related deaths in toddlers, and potentially in infants, older children, and adults.’

SUDC is similar to sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), which is the sudden and unexplained death of a child between one month and one year old. 

Even after a complete investigation, doctors are not able to determine a cause of death. 

Like with SUDC, there is no known cause of SIDS. However, there are known risk factors and there are ways you can reduce your child’s chances of dying from the condition. 

The Cleveland Clinic reports that 90 percent of infants who die from SIDS are younger than six months old and most babies appear to have died in their sleep between midnight and 6 am.

The clinic estimates that approximately 2,500 infants die every year from SIDS in the US – making it the leading cause of babies between one and 12 months.

Almost all SIDS and SUDC deaths happen without any warnings or signs. 

However, researchers have studied potential SIDS causes and widely agree on the theory that babies who die of SIDS have an underlying vulnerability, such as a genetic pattern or a brain abnormality, that when exposed to a trigger during the early stages of immune and brain development causes sudden death. 

NYU researchers estimate there are 400 SUDC cases per year in the US, occurring mostly during sleep and about half of the deaths happen in children one to three years old (stock photo)

NYU researchers estimate there are 400 SUDC cases per year in the US, occurring mostly during sleep and about half of the deaths happen in children one to three years old (stock photo)

Risk factors for SIDS include, a mother smoking, drinking or using drugs during pregnancy, a premature birth, teen pregnancy, low birth weight, overheating, an unsafe sleeping environment and being assigned male at birth. 

There is no scientific evidence that vaccines cause SIDS. 

Preventative SIDS measures include not sharing a bed with your baby, removing loose bedding from a baby’s sleep environment, placing the baby on their back, keeping the sleeping environment cool and using a baby-safe crib. 

SIDS cases outnumber SUDC cases by four-to-one, but SIDS is much more widely researched than SUDC, receiving about 20 times the funding.  

An previous study from NYU in 2021 identified the first genetic risk factor for SUDC, finding that changes in specific genes that regulate calcium function may contribute to deaths. 

Calcium is important for brain cell and heart muscle function. When calcium does not function properly in the body it can cause abnormal heart rhythms or seizures, both of which increase the risk of sudden death. 

Dr Devinsky of the most recent study called convulsive seizures the possible ‘smoking gun that medical science has been looking for to understand why these children die.’ 

He added: ‘Studying this phenomenon may also provide critical insight into many other deaths, including those from SIDS and epilepsy.’

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