GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The loss of a child brings unimaginable heartbreak.

“But not understanding what has happened adds a layer of grief and confusion and guilt and sadness and sorrow to the family,” Spectrum Health pediatric specialist Dr. Kira Sieplinga said.

Sieplinga has had to break the news to parents who have lost a child to sudden infant death syndrome.

“Then there are remaining questions about the risk for future children and the complexities that go with that,“ Sieplinga said.

SIDS is the unexplained death of a seemingly healthy baby less than a year old, usually while the baby is asleep. Its cause has long been a mystery to the medical community.

But a new study suggests one answer to why a child suddenly dies with no obvious explanation.

June’s issue of the biomedical journal eBiomedecine reports that Australian researchers studied neurotransmitters, the signal the brain sends to the body to make sure hearts, lungs and other vital organs are operating.

“If you get too much of one or too little of a signal, you’ll have problems,” Sieplinga said.

The study looked at an enzyme that regulates neurotransmitters.

“It turns out in this study, this small study, that the infants who succumb to sudden infant unexplained death had lower levels of this neurotransmitter break down enzyme at day two of life,” Sieplinga said.

Of the 3,400 sudden unexpected infant deaths recorded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2019, 37% were attributed to SIDS, 34.7% were of unknown causes and 28% were the result of accidental strangulation in bed.

According to the Michigan Department of Community Health, of the 137 unexpected infant deaths in 2020, 43 died as a result of SIDS. 

Simple suggestions like laying babies on their backs to sleep and limiting the amount of bedding around them have decreased SIDS cases by 50% since 1992.

The big question for parents is, does the study suggest a cure or a warning?

“I think it’s much too soon to know that. Because this is just one possible finding,” Selinga said. “Maybe it’s an exciting first step so that down the road in those newborn screens that we get that detect so many diseases, potentially down the road it might indicate another one that we could find and either intervene in or know which babies we need to keep a closer eye on.”