Published online by Cambridge University Press: 20 July 2018
The term sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) was first proposed in 1969 in order to focus attention on a subgroup of infants with similar clinical features whose deaths occurred unexpectedly in the postnatal period (1). Today the definition of SIDS refers to death in a seemingly healthy infant younger than 1 year of age whose death remains unexplained after a thorough case investigation including a complete autopsy, review of medical and clinical history, and death scene investigation (2). SIDS is typically associated with a sleep period (3) with death presumed to have occurred during sleep itself or in the transition between sleep and waking (4). This led to application of the terms “cot” or “crib” death; however, these terms are rarely used today. Furthermore, while the definition is inclusive of infants up to 1 year of age, approximately 95% of SIDS deaths occur in the first six months of life with a peak incidence in infants aged between 2 to 4 months (5). While there are distinctive features associated with the syndrome there are no diagnostic features that can be attributed to a SIDS death. Indeed, application of the term relies on a process of elimination and when no known cause of death or contributing factors can be determined, the term SIDS is usually applied. Thus, while the debate continues regarding the definition and use of the term SIDS, and no one definition has been universally accepted, one certainty persists, and that is that SIDS still remains a diagnosis of exclusion (1).
Sudden death in a seemingly healthy infant during sleep is not a phenomenon of modern times, with cases being recorded throughout history for thousands of years. Indeed, one of the first cases is mentioned in the Bible (1 Kings 3:19). However, these deaths have generally been attributed to overlaying, as it was common practice to sleep in the same bed as a child. Indeed, the death of an infant by “overlay” was considered such an issue that by the seventh century the event was a punishable offence (6), with the introduction of a “protective” wooden arcuccio for infants to sleep in during the 18th century in Europe with severe penalties if the infant died in a co-sleeping arrangement and the frame was not used (7).