The death of a child is a devastating experience for a family. A sudden infant death is always a major trauma as well as an extreme loss. The unexpected nature of the death, the lack of explanation and the stage of intense bonding from which the parents are wrenched all contribute to a profoundly disturbing sense of chaos and unreality.
The death of the baby itself is the singularly most devastating fact. This is accompanied, in the circumstances of a sudden unexpected death, by an almost overwhelming sense of responsibility by the parents. For many parents, this will be the first time they have encountered death. They will be unfamiliar with the symptoms of grief and unprepared for the profound changes in emotional, physical and psychological wellbeing. To some it may even seem that they are "going crazy".
The involvement of police, the requirements for an autopsy and ultimately the lack of explanation that remains, compound parents' feelings of loss of control over their lives. In a sudden infant death the baby's appearance may be altered by the onset of rigor mortis and also by the presence of blood, mucus or froth around the nose or mouth. Patches of purple discolouration of the skin can often be seen and are most striking in dependent portions of the body. Thus they may appear about the face if the infant was lying prone, or at the extremities. These marks may increase the concern of parents, and even police, that the baby's death was caused through some interference.
Parents will experience real fears for other young children in the home especially any of a multiple birth. In the case of SIDS, a surviving twin should be examined closely by the GP or a paediatrician for any sign of congenital or infectious disease.
Parents will be desperately seeking an explanation for their baby's death and the preliminary autopsy results will represent the first concrete information available. Communication of these results as soon as possible after the autopsy is completed is essential in minimising parents' distress especially about their own responsibility for the death.