The Anesthesiologist Who May Have The Cure For SIDS

Sleeping baby
“A babe in a house is a well-spring of pleasure.” —Martin Farquhar Tupper

In A Nutshell

As many as 4,000 US infants die of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) each year. David Rubens, a 52-year-old anesthesiologist at Seattle Children’s Hospital, believes that SIDS is linked to an inner-ear problem, causing a baby to have a hard time waking up and repositioning himself if he can’t breathe properly. Earlier research showed that SIDS babies had trouble hearing three separate sound frequencies in their right ears. Some autopsies revealed serious ear damage. Rubens believes that a hearing test for every baby within two days of birth may be the answer.

The Whole Bushel

According to the latest data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), over 2,000 US infants died of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) in 2010. Some estimates put the death rate at over 4,000 infants per year in the US alone. The CDC defines SIDS as “the sudden death of an infant less than 1 year of age that cannot be explained after a thorough investigation is conducted, including a complete autopsy, examination of the death scene, and a review of the clinical history. SIDS is the leading cause of death in infants 1 to 12 months old.” Most deaths occur when the baby is four months old or younger.

Why do these babies suddenly stop breathing, often just after they’ve been put down for a nap? Risk factors are the baby’s sleeping position, preterm birth, sex, and race/ethnic origin. Putting a baby to sleep on his back is the safest position. A baby sleeping on his stomach has 2–13 times more risk of dying from SIDS than a baby sleeping on his back. Preterm births before 39 weeks carry a greater risk of SIDS as do male children and African-American or Native American/Alaska Native babies.

For parents, it’s absolutely devastating, especially when no one can really explain the cause of death in these cases. David Rubens, a 52-year-old anesthesiologist at Seattle Children’s Hospital, believes he’s closing in on the answer. He’s been researching SIDS for over 10 years.

Ruben’s hypothesis is that SIDS is linked to an inner-ear problem, causing a baby to have a hard time waking up and repositioning himself if he can’t breathe properly. So he ultimately stops breathing and dies.

Rubens wants to do more research, but he believes that the answer is a hearing test for every baby within two days of birth. The test would screen for the unique dysfunction that appears to cause SIDS. About a month later, an at-risk baby would have a more comprehensive exam to follow up.

Earlier research from the Rhode Island Department of Health found that all infants in a test group who died of SIDS had a hearing deficit. Specifically, they had some trouble hearing three separate sound frequencies in their right ears. All the babies without this hearing problem lived. As further evidence that an ear problem may be linked to SIDS, autopsies of four SIDS victims showed that each of these infants had serious damage, including bleeding, in their inner ear. Rubens was able to recreate the results by testing mice.

Although he’s having trouble raising the funds to continue his research—mainly because it won’t result in a profitable drug for a pharmaceutical company—Rubens is determined to find the cure for these young victims.

Show Me The Proof

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: About SUID and SIDS
National Institute of Child Health and Human Development: How many infants die from SIDS or are at risk for SIDS?
Seattle Times: One Seattle Children’s doctor thinks he’s close to stopping SIDS

  • Hillyard

    Hopefully this guy is right and an answer can be found for this devastating problem.
    I have known two people that lost a child to SIDS, one when I was single and the other just after the birth of my youngest. That led to a lot of sleepless nights watching my little girl.
    My most awesome daughters are now 29 and 23 and making their dad proud everyday.