Sleeping in a room with a fan lowers a baby’s risk of sudden infant death syndrome by 72 percent, a new study has found.
The finding, published Monday in The Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, is the latest evidence to suggest that a baby’s sleep environment is a critical factor in the risk of SIDS, which is diagnosed when an infant’s sudden death cannot be explained by other factors.
The study was not designed to identify why fans make a difference, but researchers said they thought that by circulating air, fans lowered the risk of “rebreathing” exhaled carbon dioxide. That risk has been suggested as a reason the rate of SIDS is higher when children sleep on their stomach, in a soft bed or without a pacifier.
Since 1992 the rate of SIDS deaths has dropped by more than half, to about one death per 2,000 live births from 2.4 per 1,000. The decline is linked to a national “Back to Sleep” campaign that promotes putting babies on their back instead of their stomach, which has been shown to lower the risk of sudden death.
The American Academy of Pediatrics also recommends that parents avoid soft bedding, allow babies to use a pacifier and avoid overheating a baby’s room.
Despite the gains, SIDS continues to be the leading cause of death in babies under the age of 1, and researchers are looking for more measures to lower the risk.
The latest study compared 185 babies who had died of SIDS with 312 randomly selected babies and matched them by age, race, ethnic group and country of origin.
“Even though we don’t know why certain babies are more susceptible, sleeping environment matters,” said a co-author of the study, Dr. De-Kun Li, a reproductive and perinatal epidemiologist at Kaiser Permanente’s division of research in Oakland, Calif.
Parents who worry that their child will be chilled by a fan should know that fans do not cool the air; they just move air around. A baby will feel a chill only if he or she is perspiring, doctors say.
Parents who use fans in a child’s room should make sure to take normal safety precautions, keeping cords out of the way and making sure the fan cannot be knocked down by a toddler or pet.
Dr. Li said the use of fans should not replace other sleeping strategies for lowering SIDS, like removing soft bedding and putting babies on their back. He noted that the gains shown in the study were an average for the whole group, including for babies whose care did not meet the guidelines. Still, even if a baby had a safe sleeping environment, the risk of SIDS was lowered by about 16 percent for those who had a fan in the room, although the trend was not statistically significant.
“If parents wanted to do more to reduce the baby’s SIDS risk,” he said, “they can add a fan.”