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Dad's Pot Use Increases SIDS Risk

New research puts infant at greater risk than if mom lights up

WEDNESDAY, July 18, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- A baby's chances of dying from sudden infant death syndrome doubles if the father smokes marijuana around the time of conception and pregnancy, and the risk triples if dad smokes pot once baby is born. On the other hand, the use of marijuana by the mother has no significant impact.

Those are the startling findings from a new study of recreational drug use as a risk factor for SIDS, done by a group of researchers at the University of California San Diego.

"It came as a big surprise," admits Hillary Klonoff-Cohen, lead researcher on the study, which will appear in the next issue of the Archive of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine. "We thought it would be the other way around."

This is believed to be the first study to examine the role of parental drug use as a risk factor in SIDS from conception through infancy. And while women have long heard that drinking, smoking and using drugs could hurt their unborn babies, this appears to be the first new research that says new fathers may also need to clean up their acts.

SIDS is the sudden and unexpected death of an apparently healthy infant. It is the leading cause of death in infants between one month and 12 months old, according to the SIDS Alliance, a national umbrella organization of SIDS service groups. Although the cause of SIDS is unknown, research has found several risk factors, including low-birth weight, bed sharing, sleep position, the age of the mother (babies of teens are at higher risk than babies of older mothers), and the use of tobacco, cocaine and heroin during pregnancy.

The study involved interviews with parents of 239 infants who died of SIDS in southern California between 1989 and 1992. A control group of parents who had healthy babies during the same time at the same hospitals also were interviewed.

Klonoff-Cohen cautions that the results of the study could be related to several factors, none of which is conclusive yet.

"It might be that a large number of men smoked marijuana compared to the women, or they smoked more frequently or for a longer time," she says. "They might not be aware that their lifestyle habits can affect pregnancy outcomes. Maybe there are differences between men and women in reporting their use. All of those issues might touch on the reasons why -- it's hard to know."

Klonoff-Cohen was quick to point out that further study is needed to properly assess the risk of marijuana use. She hopes to see studies with larger sample groups and "biological validation" of the parents' drug use, instead of relying on their memories.

"We need to do larger studies, no question," she says. "You can't base advice on one study. The findings are tentative, and we should approach them with caution."

Dr. Jonathan Clemens, a pediatrician at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore and a professor at the University of Maryland, says the study's results are intriguing.

"When I first saw it, I thought, 'Wow, finally the dads are getting involved in some degree of accountability,' " he says. "The fingers have always been pointed at the moms for what they do -- sharing this burden may be appropriate up front."

While agreeing that the study is preliminary and more research is needed, Clemens says it could give him added ammunition when he's talking to teenage boys about drugs.

"I have a lot of teenagers, when I ask them about drug use, they say, 'No, I just smoke dope.' There's a feeling among teenagers that it's not equivalent to harder drugs. I might say to teenage boys, 'There are lots of good reasons for not using drugs. Plus, there's a chance that when you have children, you might be more likely to have a baby die from SIDS,'" Clemens adds.

What To Do: For more information about sudden infant death syndrome, visit the American Sudden Infant Death Syndrome Institute, the SIDS Alliance and the National SIDS Resource Center.

SOURCES: Interviews with Hillary Klonoff-Cohen, Ph.D., associate professor, Department of Family and Preventive Medicine, University of California San Diego; Jonathan Clemens, M.D., pediatrician, Mercy Medical Center, Baltimore; July 2001 Archive of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine
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