Since antiquity, cot death has been explained as accidental suffocation, overlaying, or smothering. Parents were blamed for neglect or drunkenness. A cage called arcuccio was invented around 1570 to protect the sleeping infant. Up to the 19th century, accidents were registered as natural causes of death. From 1830, accidental suffocation became unacceptable for physicians and legislators, and “natural” explanations for the catastrophe were sought, with parents being consoled rather than blamed. Two assumed causes had serious consequences: thymus hyperplasia was irradiated, causing thyroid cancer, and the concept of central apnea was widely accepted, which led to home monitors and distracted from epidemiological evidence. Prone sleeping originated in the 1930s and from 1944, it was associated with cot death. However, from the 1960s, many authors recommended prone sleeping for infants, and many countries adopted the advice. A worldwide epidemic followed, peaking at 2‰ in England and Wales and 5‰ in New Zealand in the 1980s. Although epidemiological evidence was available by 1970, the first intervention was initiated in the Netherlands in 1989. Cot death disappeared almost entirely wherever prone sleeping was avoided. This strongly supports the assumption that prone sleeping has the greatest influence on the disorder, and that the epidemic resulted from wrong advice.

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