Prone sleep and unsafe sleep surfaces increase the risk of sudden infant death. Recent epidemiologic studies also suggest that when an infant's head or face is covered by bedding, or when a sleep surface is shared with others, the risk of dying increases. The inference of a causal role for these risk factors is supported by physiologic studies and by the consistent finding that fewer infants die when risk factors are reduced. The prevalence of most of these risk factors in infant deaths in the United States is uncertain.


To describe the prevalence of several important risk factors related to sleep practices among a defined population of infants dying suddenly and unexpectedly.


In this population-based study, we retrospectively reviewed death-scene information and medical examiners' investigations of deaths in the city of St Louis and St Louis County between January 1, 1994 and December 31, 1997. Because of the potential for diagnostic overlap, all deaths involving infants <2 years old with the diagnoses of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), accidental suffocation, or cause undetermined were included.


The deaths of 119 infants were studied. Their mean age was 109.3 days (range: 6–350). The diagnoses were SIDS in 88 deaths, accidental suffocation in 16, and undetermined in 15. Infants were found prone in 61.1% of cases and were found on a sleep surface not designed for infants in 75.9%. The head or face was covered by bedding in 29.4%. A shared sleep surface was the site of death in 47.1%. Only 8.4% of deaths involved infants found nonprone and alone, with head and face uncovered.


Using detailed death-scene descriptions, we found that similar unsafe sleeping practices occurred in the large majority of cases diagnosed as SIDS, accidental suffocation, and cause undetermined. Considering these diagnoses together may be useful in public health campaigns during a time when there may be diagnostic overlap. Regardless of the diagnosis, recommendations that infants sleep supine on firm sleep surfaces that lessen the risk of entrapment or head covering have the potential to save many lives. Campaigns are needed to heighten awareness of these messages and of the risks of dangerous bedsharing.

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