“Babies Don’t Smother” McCall’s 1952 | History of SIDS Research | Read Along

Read along to this McCall’s article by Edith Sterne about 1952’s latest research on the causes of sudden infant death, long before we had the term SIDS (coined in the 1960s). In particular, that suffocation was not the cause of sudden infant deaths and that stomach sleeping wasn’t a risk factor, a theory which had been promoted the 1930s-40s.

The article features interviews with early SIDS researchers with the U.S. Children’s Bureau, Dr Katherine Bain, as well as Dr Jacob Werne and Dr Irene Garrow. They discussed the need for rigorous scientific investigations of deaths, dispelling of misinformation for doctors and the public, and support for families who experience the loss of a baby.

The author of the article, Edith Sterne, wrote widely about mental health from the 1940s until her death in 1975, including “Mental Illness: A Guide for the Family” (1942) and “The Mental Hospital: A Guide for the Citizen” (1947), as well as about childhood disability and healthy ageing. Many of her books are available on Archive.org.

Edith Sterne, photo found on the dust jacket of her book You and Your Ageing Parents (1965). Archive.org

As always, these historical-source read-alongs are not intended to provide advice or recommendations. At the time of publishing this video, this particular article is 71 years old. If you have questions about safe sleep for your baby or about SIDS, please consult a qualified licensed medical provider.

For more recent historical context: since the 1990s the “Back to Sleep” program has promoted putting babies to sleep on their backs in a crib with no bedding (beyond a firm tightly fitting mattress and secure sheet) or toys as a means of preventing both SIDS and suffocation, due to the belief that babies *will* smother and/or that SIDS is more likely to occur when babies sleep on their stomachs. To this day there is still a lot of confusion about the distinction between SIDS (a diagnosis of exclusion) and suffocation (which is not SIDS), if suffocation is determined as the cause of death it cannot be SIDS, if SIDS is the cause of death then it wasn’t suffocation.

I hope that sources like this can help people see how science works over the long term, as well as how trends and popular fears regarding baby care can be cyclical. When I was working in childcare in the 00s I remember listening to shouting matches between mothers and grandmothers, the former practically accusing the latter of attempted murder for putting baby down on their tummy to nap, and the latter defending herself as having put the former down to sleep on her tummy from birth. Yet in the 1950’s it may have been grandma lecturing the mom about the dangers of tummy sleeping while the mom told her about the new science dispelling that “superstitious” nonsense.

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