Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) has a long history—almost as long as human civilization (Raven, 2018). The term was coined in 1969 to bring attention to children who died in the postnatal period (Kinney and Thach, 2012; Duncan and Byard, 2018). About 95 percent of SIDS cases occur within the first 6 months of life, happening around the 4-6 months mark (Fleming, Blair, and Pease, 2015). The syndrome is associated with the sleep period, presumed to have begun with the transition from sleep to waking (Kinney and Thach, 2012) The prone sleeping position, along with smoking, is said to increase the incidence of SIDS (Ramirez, Ramirez, and Anderson, 2018). Due to a campaign in the mid-90s, though (called the back-to-sleep campaign), it has been estimated that SIDS deaths have decreased by 50 percent, saving thousands of infant lives (Kinney and Thach, 2012).
But, those infants who die from SIDS may also have a problem with the part of their brain that controls waking/sleeping:
Infants who die from SIDS may have a problem with the part of the brain that helps control breathing and waking during sleep. If a baby is breathing stale air and not getting enough oxygen, the brain usually triggers the baby to wake up and cry to get more oxygen.
So, if a baby’s brain is not getting enough oxygen, its brain will have it wake up and cry in an attempt to rid itself of “stale oxygen”—this is one other purpose that crying serves—which then gets the baby more oxygen to its brain.
As can be imagined, acute rises in CO2 levels occur when an individual is unable to expel CO2, such as in the setting of an airway obstruction that might occur when an individual is lying prone in a crib or bed perhaps with a pillow and bedclothes covering the nose and mouth. It has been proposed that such a rise in CO2 would activate arousal circuitry in a normal baby to wake the baby up, cause them to cry out, summoning a caregiver who would come to their aid, and ostensibly correct the airway blockage to allow resumption of normal breathing [16,20,31]. It has been proposed, among other possibilities, that there is an impaired CO2-arousal system in SIDS-susceptible babies such that when they rebreathe CO2 as described above, they do not arouse, and thus do not cry out, and the blockage is not corrected [16,32]. They thus become acidotic and hypoxic and ultimately succumb.
So, if a babe’s airway gets blocked, for instance by a pillow or toy, they wake, cry out for attention and their caregiver comes to solve the problem or they change their laying position. But in SIDS cases, this does not occur. Why? Buchanan argues that those who succumb to sudden deaths like SIDS have screwy serotonin receptors—they ensure that blood oxygen and CO2 levels are healthy. But some of these infants may have brains that don’t allow them to detect the CO2 and blood oxygen levels—when the body may be suffocating. SIDS victims are usually found face-down in their cribs. But, there are no biomarkers for SIDS (Haynes, 2018). The SIDS diagnosis is only given after all other causes of death are ruled out—this is why SIDS is so mysterious. Genetic mutations have been posited as a cause (Männikkö et al, 2018), as has a pregnant mother smoking during pregancy, leading to a doubled risk of SIDS (Anderson et al, 2019).
But the best prevention against SIDS is nonprone sleeping—having the baby sleep on its back. The efficacy of this approach since the 1990ss has been noted (Gibson et al, 1992; de Luca and Hinide, 2016) while “Achieving recommended prenatal care and infant vaccinations, as well as reductions in maternal tobacco and substance use, has the potential to further reduce rates of SIDS and should be given as much attention as safe sleep advice in SIDS risk reduction campaigns” (Hauck and Tanabe, 2017: e289). The back-to-sleep program, though, has been associated with a decrease in motor development from the infant sending time in the supine position along with the strong possibility of developing plagiocephaly—which causes a “flat head” due to being placed in similar positions while the infant’s skull is soft and still developing (Miller et al, 2011). It has also been estimated that if it was known that the advice to place infants on their stomachs to sleep led to SIDS, then we “might have prevented over 10 000 infant deaths in the UK and at least 50 000 in Europe, the USA, and Australasia” (Gilbert et al, 2005: 884).
But the history of SIDS in America is a lot more sinister—rather than children dying from ‘natural causes’ (SIDS), in the 1970s, it was hypothesized by one SIDS researcher that SIDS was ‘genetic’ and ‘transmissible’ on the basis of one family who, unfortunately, had experienced this tragedy more than once.
This leads us to the story of Waneta Hoyt, who is the subject of this article.
Hoyt and Steinschneider: Genes vs environment
Horrible tragedies befell a woman from New York named Waneta Hoyt—five of her children had mysteriously died due to SIDS between the years of 1965-1971.
Waneta killed her first child, Eric who was three-months-old. SIDS is a diagnosis that is arrived at through a process of elimination—rule out all other causes at a young age (under 1) and the cause is then SIDS. But, the thing is, when an autopsy is performed on the infant, there is no difference between what would be said to be SIDS deaths and a light smothering.
After Waneta murdered her first child, she was cold and distant but it was not noticed. It was reported that she would never hold her children as a loving mother would, keeping them quite far from her. But it wasn’t until three years later that she, again, murdered. But this time it was two of her children—her two-year-old son and six-week-old daughter. The murders that Waneta were committing were wrongfully diagnosed as being due to SIDS.
This caught the attention of renowned SIDS researcher Alfred Steinschneider who had a clinic in which he specialized in caring for infants who were thought to be high-risk for SIDS. Steinschneider wanted to watch Waneta’s fourth child in his sleeping ward, in an attempt to prevent what he thought was due to SIDS. So, when he heard of Waneta’s story, he reached out to her to monitor her daughter, Molly.
The nurses at Steinschneider’s clinic, though, became suspicious of Waneta when she was at the clinic since she was cold and distant to Molly—she would not show her any affection. Steinschneider’s nurses emphatically told Steinschneider that it was Waneta who was murdering her children. Steinschneider shot back, and sent Molly home anyway. In an interview on the television program Deadly Women called Mothers Who Kill, one of the nurses who watched Molly before she was discharged by Steinschneider said:
And then about a quarter to eleven when we were getting ready to go off duty I said ‘Joyce, what do you think, do you think she’s still alive?’ Of course when I came on duty the next day she was dead.
Forty-eight hours later, on Thursday, June 4, Steinschneider scheduled Molly for her third discharge. By now, the nurses were speaking more openly about their suspicions. “I just know something’s going to happen,” Corrine Dower said to Thelma. “One of these times she’s going to do it.” Corrine was scornful of Steinschneider. “If he had any brains at all he would have seen that she didn’t want the baby,” she would say years later. “You can tell in the grocery store if a person cares about their child. We were just disgusted with Steinschneider.” (book excerpt from How Two Baby Deaths Led to a Misguided SIDS Theory)
Presumably, since this was Waneta’s fourth time experiencing the tragedy of SIDS, Steinschneider did not think that Waneta could be involved—but his nurses knew the truth. It was when Waneta had her fifth child that Steinschneider thought he would make his breakthrough in his research. Steinschneider was so convinced that the baby’s were dying due to SIDS, and he thought that if he could monitor Waneta’s new baby as much as possible, that he may figure out why babies die from SIDS.
Steinschneider believes that SIDS is hereditary—passed on through genes. The fifth child was watched at Steinschneider’s clinic and when Steinschneider discharged him—in an attempt to prove his theory—his nurses protested. Then, shortly after, Waneta called Steinschneider saying that it had happened again—her fifth child had mysteriously died.
After the death of Waneta’s fifth child, Steinschneider published his paper Prolonged Apnea and the Sudden Infant Death Syndrome: Clinical and Laboratory Observations arguing that SIDS was caused largely by hereditary sleep apnea (Steinschneider, 1972). By 1997, Steinschneider’s paper was the most-cited paper in the SIDS literature (Bergman, 1997). It was due to Steinschneider’s research, though, that parents began using sleep monitors to monitor their children’s sleep so they could be alerted in case their child had sleep apnea.
Steinschneider cared more about his research and theory of SIDS and sleep apnea over what was striking him right in the face—Waneta was responsible for the deaths of her five children. Steinschneider’s 1972 paper was cited and used for 22 years, until it was found upon an in-depth look into Steinschneider’s paper that what was clear to Steinschneider’s nurses and not him was true—Waneta was responsible for the deaths of her children. Steinschneider’s paper, in any case, concluded that SIDS is a genetic disorder and it was thusly inherited. And Waneta’s case, it seems, lent credence to his hypothesis. Steinschneider gave Waneta the perfect alibi—her woes were caused by a genetic disease and there was nothing that could have been done to prevent it.
Waneta was convicted in 1995 of five counts of murder and sentenced to 75 years in prison—therefore refuting Steinschneider’s theory. Three years after her sentence, though, Waneta died in prison of cancer. The case of Waneta Hoyt allowed mothers to kill their children in this specific way (a light smothering) for almost a quarter of a century.
Norton saw history repeating itself in the reluctance of many factors to face the fact that some deaths attributed to SIDS were homicides. She agreed with the bulk of SIDS research, which pointed to apnea, or the cessation of breathing, as the final pathway to death. But there were many causes of apnea, not all of them natural. An adult could place a hand or a pillow over an infant’s nose and mouth and stop the child from breathing. The pressure needed to smother an infant often left no telltale signs, Norton explained.
“There is no way for the pathologist at autopsy to distinguish between homicidal smothering and SIDS,” she concluded.
Norton worried that homicides were being passed off as SIDS because many doctors held the erroneous belief that SIDS ran in families. They ignored large-scale studies that had shown no genetic tendency toward SIDS. Flouting conventional wisdom, Norton warned that the sudden, unexplained death of a SIDS victim’s sibling should be treated as a possible homicide.
When Waneta was convicted, letters to the editor were sent about Steinschneider’s paper. The short correction to the paper chronicles, interestingly, a letter to the editor of the journal Pediatrics, who published the Steinschneider paper
“But the paper indicated a more sinister possibility to Dr. John F. Hick of Minnesota. In a letter to the journal, he wrote that the case offered “circumstantial evidence suggesting a critical role for the mother in the death of her children.” (See below.)
But his warning was dismissed, until Mr. Fitzpatrick read the paper 15 years later.
“The medical records described two happy, healthy, perfectly normal kids,” he said. “It convinced me that these children were murdered.”
Hick’s letter to Pediatrics says:
In reporting two siblings who succumbed to “sudden infant death syndrome,” Steinschneider exposes an unparalleled family chronicle of infant death.’ Of five children, four died in early infancy and the other died without explanation at age 28 months. Prolonged apnea is proposed as the common denominator in the deaths, yet the author leaves many questions relevant to the fate of these children unanswered.
In her signed confession, Waneta said that she smothered her five children because their screaming made her “feel useless”, though Waneta later stated that she only said that to stop the police from questioning her. Steinschneider, like another motivated-reasoner J.P. Rushton, ignored data that did not fit his theory of sleep-apnea-induced-SIDS—specifically how Waneta acted around her children while at his clinic and the thoughts of his own nursing staff telling him not to discharge the Hoyt infants.
Waneta recalled her strangling of her children—specifically Julie:
”They just kept crying and crying. . . . I just picked up Julie and I put her into my arm, in between my arm and my neck like this . . . and I just kept squeezing and squeezing and squeezing.”
Steinschneider’s testimony during Waneta’s trial, however, is very interesting. Reported by the New York Times, Steinschneider attempted to defend his patient Waneta against claims that she had murdered her children:
Autopsies were done,” he said, speaking of Molly. “They could not find a known cause of death.”
This, Dr. Steinschneider said, “by definition” is SIDS.
But under intense cross-examination. Dr. Steinschneider conceded that he could not remember — and did not record — crucial details from the medical histories of the two infants, whom he had hospitalized for observation soon after birth. In each case, the parents had reported that the baby was having difficulty breathing and that its older siblings had died mysteriously.
The doctor also acknowledged concluding that Molly and Noah had died of SIDS without knowing how thoroughly the authorities had probed the “death scene” for evidence of other causes, including murder.
It is said—even by the prosecutor on her case—that Waneta suffered from Munchausen by proxy (Firstman and Talan, 1996)—which is the intentional cause of illness, usually on children, in order for the mother to elicit sympathy for others (Gehlawat et al, 2015). In cases like this, mothers who have the Munchausen syndrome will suffocate their children and then rush them to the hospital—they get the satisfaction of inflicting pain and then the satisfaction of getting cared for for the so-called mysterious death of their baby. One study of 51 sleep apnea monitorings found that about 40 percent of the program treated infants who had apnea that seemed to be induced by the parent; this was inferred from the fact that once the infants were admitted to the hospital, the doctors found no signs of apnea (Light and Sheridan, 1990).
One doctor even took it upon himself to place cameras in his practice in order to monitor parents that were suspected of abusing their children. Thirty-nine infants were monitored—thirty-three infants were being abused by their parents, what’s more is that some of the infants in this study who were identified in the video also had a sibling who mysteriously died from SIDS (Southall et al, 1997). What the study shows is that these parents were suffocating their children, causing their breathing problems and that they most likely have gotten away with infanticide before. Another case involved a mother taking her daughter to eleven different hospitals, but none of them found anything wrong with the girl and she ended up dying under suspicious circumstances (Hassler, Zamorski, and Weirich, 2007).
We now know that Steinschneider ignored contrary evidence to his theory of genetically-induced sleep apnea causing SIDS which apparently ran in families, and since he brushed off his nursing staff telling him that Waneta was acting strangely around her two children that he had admitted into his clinic, he could have saved their lives. But Steinschneider’s genetic determinist theory was more important than seeing what was clear as day to his staff and even others who read his 1972 paper—a mother was strangling her own infants.
SIDS has a long history, dating back to biblical times. But, in the modern-era, erroneous theories on the causes of SIDS were pushed while other, more obvious causes were disregarded in favor of a grand genetic theory of SIDS causation. Waneta and Steinschneider both helped each other out: Steinschneider (unknowingly) helped Waneta evade detection for 22 years while Waneta lent credence to the hypothesis that Steinschneider was developing. The fact that, at the time of their first meeting, three of Waneta’s children had died in almost the same fashion pointed to a genetic, inherited cause in Steinschneider’s eyes.
At the time of publication of The Death of Innocents, Steinschneider still continues to defend his now-discredited theory and still lobbies for the use of infant sleep monitors. Of course, since he testified FOR Waneta, despite the mounting evidence against her, he could be seen as an accomplice, however weakly. But this case shows one thing that should be well-known—researchers become attached to their pet hypotheses/theories and will ignore contrary evidence if it is brought to their attention. Firstman and Talman estimate that between 5 and 10 percent of SIDS cases are actually homicides. (But see Milroy and Kepron, 2017.)
Steinschneider created the SIDS disease on the basis of Waneta’s story—and a multi-million dollar industry then appeared due to his paper—it’s all to save infants, buy these sleep apnea monitors. But there were two children that Steinschneider did not—could not—save: He could have saved those babies, if not for his genetic determinist beliefs on SIDS causation. Had Steinshneider looked at the more obvious answer to the problem which was right in front of his face, he may have seen that Waneta suffered from Munchausen by Proxy, and, as evidenced from the references above, those who suffer from the disease act out exactly how Waneta did—by strangling their children with the cause of death being blamed on SIDS.
The Hoyt-Steinschneider case is a warning—don’t jump so quickly to implicate heredity in the ontology of X, especially when other, more obvious, tells are right there in front of you.