Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), also known as ‘Cot Death’, was originally defined in 1969. It is the name given to the sudden death of an infant or child which is unexpected by history and in which a thorough post mortem examination fails to demonstrate an adequate cause of death.
This is another way of saying that it is not known why these babies die. In New Zealand, SIDS accounts for the deaths of more babies between the ages of one month and one year than any known cause. This is because the treatment and prevention of other potentially fatal childhood diseases have become more successful.
The average incidence of SIDS in New Zealand, as in many other western countries, is now about one in two thousand live births – around 45 babies each year. This is a major improvement since 1990 when two hundred and fifty babies died of SIDS.
Recent research has shown that the risk of SIDS has been at least halved in many countries by changing some child care practices. For example: it is now known that tummy sleeping is a risk factor, although it is not possible to identify which babies are at risk, and SIDS still occurs even when all the known risk factors have been reduced.
Although SIDS is most common between the ages of two and four months, it can happen to younger and older infants. SIDS can happen to children over 12 months of age, although this is rare. SIDS occurs in both breast-fed and bottle-fed babies, and of those who die, approximately 60 per cent are boys and 40 per cent are girls. Infants have died from SIDS at all times of the day and night, in cots, prams, car seats, bassinets, even in parents’ arms.
When anyone dies suddenly or unexpectedly, the law requires that the police attend and report to a coroner. The coroner has to establish the cause of death and to do this he or she must find out the circumstances surrounding death so as to distinguish between natural and unnatural deaths. It is the coroner’s duty to investigate all sudden deaths to be sure that death is due to natural causes, as is the case with SIDS.
Understandably, these things are very distressing at the time. However, the fact that a post mortem examination has been done and the coroner has looked into each death is a safeguard against any possible doubt or criticism of the parents, the family, or whoever was looking after the child at the time of death.