Columbia-based group pursues the mystery of SIDS

Each year, thousands of new parents in America wake up to the same nightmare.

They arise one morning to a silent home. Their newborn child seems to have slept quietly through the night. They then walk to a crib, lean over and see that their baby is dead.


And no one can explain why.

For almost two years, a national organization in Columbia has been working to help understand and prevent these mysterious deaths, and to comfort the families they affect. The Sudden Infant Death Syndrome Alliance raises money to study the disease and helps coordinate a network of 53 family-support and public-education groups nationwide.


"It's a new start-up charity that is basically trying to [form] a national movement," Tom Moran, the group's president, said from his office on the fourth floor of the Parkside building on Little Patuxent Parkway.

SIDS was identified as a disease in 1969. This year, it will kill as many as 7,000 babies in the United States, according to figures from the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Bureau of Vital Statistics, Mr. Moran said.

No apparent symptoms or causes have been identified. The leading theory is that SIDS is related to practically undetectable abnormalities in the brain stem, which controls breathing.

The alliance, a private, non-profit corporation, came together early in 1991 as a coalition of six SIDS-related groups. Two of the organizations, the National Center for the Prevention of SIDS and the National SIDS Foundation, were based in Baltimore and Landover, respectively.

The alliance chose Howard County as a compromise. Five of the organization's 17 employees live in Columbia, and about a dozen volunteers from the county help with duties such as mailing public-service materials. "We really do have a need for lots of hands at times," said Phipps Cohe, the organization's public affairs coordinator.

Most recently, the alliance has become involved in a national debate over infants' sleeping positions. Last spring, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that parents put most infants to sleep on their backs or sides to reduce the threat of SIDS.

That surprised pediatricians and parents, the majority of whom have placed their children on their stomachs for decades. No one seems to know why that practice has persisted. Parents presumably started doing it to reduce the risk of choking when the child spits up, said Dr. Michael May, assistant chairman of the Department of Pediatrics at Howard County General Hospital.

The pediatric academy based its decision on overseas studies, including the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand. The data showed that infants who slept on their stomachs had a higher risk of SIDS. The academy, however, was not sure why.


A review of the foreign studies this spring in the Journal of the American Medical Association suggested that a change in sleeping position could save as many as 2,000 lives a year. No such study has been completed in the United States.

The SIDS alliance has endorsed the academy's recommendation. In June, Howard County General Hospital, which delivers nearly 3,000 babies annually, began putting babies on their sides and backs.

The alliance is financing a two-year, $50,000 study at the University of Southern California to examine the relationship between sleeping position and the incidence of SIDS in the United States. The group spent part of the summer lobbying Congress to increase funding for SIDS research, particularly on sleeping position.

Mr. Moran said the group helped increase federal funding for research from $8.3 million this year to a proposed $11 million for fiscal 1993. The current budget proposal includes $1 million for research on the effect of sleep positions.

Though Mr. Moran and his staff are delighted with the increase, they would like still more funding.