The legal and medical systems have been a little like Oscar Wilde's Lady Bracknell when it comes to cot deaths - one is unfortunate, but two or more is suspicious. On that basis mothers have been jailed when more than one of their children has died mysteriously.
But a new study suggests that even a series of cot deaths within the same family is most likely due to natural causes. Researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine came to this conclusion after studying the records of families who have experienced one or more cot deaths.
Their histories have been recorded by the Care of Next Infant (CONI) programme, and the families of the 6,373 infant deaths on the CONI files later reported a further 57 deaths. Of these, nine were classified as 'inevitable', but 48 were unexpected. Just two deaths on the CONI files were homicide, suggesting a far lower incidence than previous studies, which had put the homicide rate as high as 30 per cent. In some cases the researchers agreed there had been 'less than optimum care', but this did not amount to homicide.
The idea that a second cot death is likely to be homicide is based on the false assumption that it is such a rare occurrence. But the researchers conclude that a second cot death in the same family is more common than people realize, and that the vast majority of them - 40 in 45 cases and 18 in 20 in the two files reviewed by the research team - were natural.