Even though rates of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) in the U.S. have declined substantially in recent years, SIDS deaths are still disproportionately high among certain racial and ethnic minority populations. African American babies are more than twice as likely to die from SIDS as Caucasian babies, while American Indian and Alaska Native infants have the highest SIDS rates in the nation—2.6 times higher than in the general population.

Nurses can help reduce this tragic disparity by educating minority parents, families and communities about proven “safe sleep” techniques for decreasing SIDS risk. These include, among others, placing infants to sleep on their backs, avoiding the use of soft bedding materials, preventing babies from becoming overheated, using a pacifier and not smoking around infants. And now, a new research study from Kaiser Permanente has added another important item to that checklist: placing an electric fan in baby’s bedroom to improve air ventilation.

As reported in the October 2008 issue of the journal Archives of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine, the study found that infants who slept in a bedroom with a fan ventilating the air had a 72% lower risk of SIDS than those who slept in a bedroom without a fan. In fact, use of a bedroom fan was found to be particularly beneficial for babies who were in a high-risk sleep environment, such as sleeping on their stomach or in an overheated room. However, the researchers warn, fan use by itself is not a substitute for safe sleep practices like placing babies on their backs; it must be used in conjunction with these other risk reduction methods, not instead of them.

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The study also uncovered some evidence suggesting that improving room ventilation by opening a window may have some effect in protecting infants from SIDS, though it is not as helpful as turning on a fan. Opening a window in a baby’s room reduced the risk of SIDS by 36% compared to babies who slept in a room with closed windows, though this connection was not statistically significant. More studies need to be done to determine the exact relationship between different types of ventilation and the risks of SIDS, the researchers emphasize.

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