The public knows sudden infant death syndrome as a mysterious, unpreventable death that strikes otherwise healthy babies in their sleep. But in a series of stories, the Charlotte Observer concludes that a SIDS ruling can often mask the real cause of death. Medical examiners are supposed to call deaths SIDS only after a thorough scene investigation, autopsy and review of a baby’s medical history have ruled out all other causes. But in North Carolina, newborns and other infants have died face down in pillows and soft couches. They have died in adult beds alongside one or more people, or with their heads covered in blankets. In some cases, police have suspected foul play, even homicide.
North Carolina’s chief medical examiner often calls those deaths SIDS. That’s different from what a growing number of national experts say may be the real killer: suffocation. “SIDS has been used as an easy option,” says Dr. Ljubisa Dragovic, chief medical examiner in Michigan’s Oakland County, whose office rarely uses the SIDS diagnosis. “It has had a catastrophic effect. Every year babies die of preventable causes.” A Charlotte Observer investigation has found that in North Carolina, two-thirds of SIDS autopsies list risks that raise the possibility that babies may have suffocated because of unsafe bedding or sleeping with another person.