SIDS: Historical Perspective

A Look into the Past

Betty McEntire, PhD, Executive Director

Baby Playing with Toes

My first job dealing with SIDS was in 1976 with the Florida SIDS Counseling and Information Project. We were one of many statewide projects funded through the National SIDS Act of 1974.

In those days SIDS was viewed as neither predictable nor preventable. Parents were left with the fear that it might happen to their baby and they were helpless to prevent it. Emphasis was on research to learn more about these deaths and counseling for parents whose children died.

Epidemiological research (first conducted in New Zealand then replicated in other countries) identified several modifiable risk factors such as tobacco exposure, prone sleep and more recently bed sharing. Public health campaigns were introduced to teach parents ways to reduce the risk. As a result of these efforts parents can now feel empowered. Although not all deaths can be prevented, the chance of it occurring can be significantly reduced. Rates of sudden infant deaths are less than half what they were in the 1970s.

Another important breakthrough in research was in the 2000s. Hannah Kinney and colleagues at Harvard Medical School found evidence linking sudden infant death to abnormalities in the brainstem, a part of the brain that helps control heart rate, breathing, blood pressure, temperature and arousal. This abnormality may reduce an infant’s capacity to respond to breathing challenges. Click here for more information.

For this type of pathological research to be conducted and replicated, tissue samples from infants who have died suddenly must be made available. The American SIDS Institute with others implemented the SUID Tissue Consortium. This is a project whereby permission is obtained from parents whose infants have died suddenly and the tissue is banked at the NICHD (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development) Brain and Tissue Bank for use by researchers. To read more about the SUID Tissue Consortium, click here.

In summary, I’ve seen a lot of progress related to sleep-related infant deaths in the last 3 decades. However, there are still about 4,000 deaths occurring in the US each year. This is way too many. Join with us to help fund research that hopefully will lead to ending these tragic deaths.