New controversy over SIDS

Two forthcoming studies suggest that more SIDS cases may be due to parental abuse than previously thought.

Published September 19, 1997 8:16AM (EDT)

Losing a seemingly healthy baby in his sleep to sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), or "crib death," is one of the most tragic things a parent can experience. And according to many parents who have experienced it, it is made almost unbearably more difficult by the cloud of suspicion of infanticide that hangs over them as they grieve. Now a new book, "The Death of Innocents," suggests that many babies diagnosed with SIDS did not necessarily die on their own, but were actually killed by their parent or caregiver. The book is based partly on two studies, one by Thomas Truman, M.D., of Tallahassee Memorial Hospital, and another by David Southall, M.D., of City General Hospital in
Stoke-on-Trent, England. Together they conclude that up to 10 percent of SIDS deaths are actually infanticides, rather than the 2 to 5 percent previously believed to be the case.

Although the two studies are not scheduled for publication in Pediatrics until later this fall, their findings became news last week with the release of the book by Richard Firstman and Jamie Talan. "The Death of Innocents" also details the case of Waneta Hoyt, whose five infants mysteriously died more than 25 years ago. All of Hoyt's children were believed to have died of SIDS, forming the basis for a widely accepted theory that the syndrome runs in families. But Hoyt later confessed to having killed her children and two years ago was convicted on five counts of murder.

In Southall's study,
surveillance cameras were installed in hospital rooms to observe parents with their babies who were being hospitalized because they had stopped breathing in the past. In 39 cases over the course of several years, mothers were videotaped choking their infants.

Truman's study examined cases of apparent life-threatening events, also called "near-miss SIDS" cases (defined as instances when a baby stops breathing), and any SIDS-related diagnoses over a 23-year period at Massachusetts
General Hospital, one of the most prominent SIDS centers in the nation. He concluded that a third of 155 apneic cases had suspicious circumstances, possibly indicating
child abuse. Such circumstances include a number of near-death episodes,
siblings who died
of SIDS and repeated events that were witnessed by only one
parent or caregiver.

Although some SIDS activists have been quick to claim that the latest information will only increase the persecution of SIDS parents, the studies do not just point a finger at parents; they call into question both the medical community's largely uncritical acceptance of the theory that SIDS runs in families and the responsibility of individual doctors who might have ignored repeated near-death episodes instead of stepping in and saving lives. So far, the response from the medical community to the news has been a resounding silence; Mass General, for one, has not commented.

With an extremely heated emotional issue such as SIDS, will this news create a witch hunt or help reduce the cloud of suspicion over innocent parents? Salon spoke with Thomas Truman and National SIDS Alliance spokeswoman Phipps Cohe and got very different answers -- an indication that the controversy around SIDS is unlikely to let up any time soon.

By Dawn MacKeen

Dawn MacKeen is a former senior writer for Salon, and author of a forthcoming book about her grandfather’s survival of the Armenian Genocide, "The Hundred-Year Walk: An Armenian Odyssey" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, January 2016).

MORE FROM Dawn MacKeen

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