In one of the most well known stories from the Old Testament book of 1 Kings, King Solomon is faced with a dilemma: Two women come to see him, and tell him they live in the same house and both recently gave birth. One night while they were all asleep, the first mother rolled over on her baby, killing him. According to the second woman, the first then switched the babies, claiming the living baby as her own.
The king cleverly suggests cutting the living baby in half so that the women can share him, and the true mother reveals herself by forfeiting her claim on the child so that he can live. The writer of 1 Kings presents this story as evidence of Solomon’s wisdom, but it also suggests that what we now call Sudden Infant Death Syndrome was as mysterious to the ancients as it is to us.
Today, SIDS is the leading cause of death of children under age 1, and more than 2,000 infant deaths are attributed to it in the U.S. every year. But a study published last week in the journal Pediatrics is a reminder of how far we’ve come, thanks to public-health campaigns to combat smoking, teen pregnancy, and dangerous sleeping environments.
For most of human history, including Solomon’s time, so-called “crib death” was attributed to “overlaying,” accidental suffocation caused by mothers sleeping in the same beds as their children. In ancient Egypt, mothers were condemned to hug their babies’ bodies for three days and nights after overlaying deaths.