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SIDS, not mom, cause of infant's death

Although the woman is relieved she didn't accidentally smother her baby, she worries for her other children.

By JAMIE MALERNEE

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 1, 2001


For months, Heather Malicoate lived with the guilt.

It had clung to her like a shadow, a weight on her soul, since the morning she awoke in December to find her 21/2-month-old son, Brandon, dead in her arms. Investigators said it was likely she had accidentally smothered the infant in her sleep while they cuddled one night on the couch.

"I knew in my heart that Brandon would not blame me for whatever happened, but I still felt it was my fault," Malicoate said Monday. "It was the hardest thing I've ever had to go through."

To this day, Malicoate is still dealing with the loss of her son. But the weight of guilt has been unexpectedly lifted. According to medical examiner reports, the child did not die of suffocation. He died of sudden infant death syndrome, or SIDS.

"Everyone in my family was telling me it wasn't my fault . . . but I wouldn't listen. Now, it just feels better knowing what happened," she said. "My other children know that Brandon is up in heaven with Jesus, and my eldest daughter knows that he's the brightest star in the sky."

The police investigation into the boy's death has been closed. No signs of injury were found nor did toxicology reports show any drugs in his system, medical examiner officials said. Still, questions remain for his family, as in most SIDS cases.

SIDS, by its very definition, is surrounded by uncertainty. The syndrome is characterized as the sudden death of an infant younger than one year that remains unexplained after a thorough investigation, including performance of a complete autopsy, examination of the death scene, and review of the clinical history.

A SIDS death occurs quickly and is often associated with sleep and no signs of suffering, according to the National SIDS Resource Center. More deaths are reported in the fall and winter, and there is a 60- to 40-percent male-to-female ratio. Risk factors for SIDS include mothers who smoke or use drugs, who are 20 years old or younger, and who receive poor or no prenatal care. They also include babies born with low birth weight and anemia.

The rate of SIDS has decreased in the past decade, attributed by many to the practice of putting babies on their backs when they sleep, a prevention technique backed by the American Academy of Pediatrics. In 1998, almost 72 infants died of SIDS out of every 100,000 births. Florida's rate was slightly less. About 60 babies out of 100,000 died of SIDS, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

Although Malicoate no longer has to deal with the guilt of her son's death, she still lives with the fear of losing her other three children, who range in age from 3 to 7. The mother said she knows her fear is somewhat irrational because SIDS, by its technical definition, does not occur in children older than 1. But she still worries.

"I wake up all the time in the middle of the night," she said. "I touch them to make sure they are breathing."

Such behavior is somewhat expected, said Marsha Graham, a University of South Florida project director at the Chiles Center for Healthy Mothers and Babies. Graham said that many mothers experience guilt and fear after losing a child to SIDS.

"It's not unusual to have irrational thoughts. It's called transference -- you transfer your fears to your other children," she said. "She may have a tough time because she's got to keep her family together, as well as herself."

Help is out there, however. Graham recommended that families dealing with SIDS contact a local therapist or Bereavement Services at 1-800-362-9567.

Online support networks, such as the National SIDS & Infant Death Support Center at http://sids-id-psc.org/, are also of great help, she said.

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