Did you know that many of our current views on Sudden Infant Death Syndrome have connections to a fear of potatoes?
During the period between 1300 and 1870, Europe and North America experienced colder winters than they had during the 1100’s and 1200’s or during the 20th century. The years between 1600 and 1800 were the height of what has been called the “Little Ice Age” when temperatures dipped substantially. The harsh temperatures made it extremely difficult to grow cereal grains- a staple of most European peasants’ diets. This was bad news for peasants because the difficulty in growing grains meant high prices for cereal grains. Famine, riots and the French Revolution followed. But another sad result was infanticide.
Suffocation of young babies because an older child had not yet been weaned was rampant in England, France and Germany in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries– the height of the Little Ice Age and its accompanying famine. But to avoid being charged with murder most parents claimed that the baby had died when a parent accidentally rolled over on the baby during sleep and failed to wake up. And the idea caught on- so much so that laws were passed in many parts of Europe mandating jail time for a parent found sleeping in the same bed as a baby. And the connection has persisted in the minds of most Americans and Europeans today, despite the fact that SIDS cases typically present with intrathoracic petechiae (broken capillaries in the chest cavity) indicating a centrally mediated airway failure consistent with apnea and gasping rather than an obstruction of the airway. In other words, the baby stopped breathing because the baby’s central airway collapsed, not because of suffocation.
However, history could have been different for the French if they had embraced the potato. The potato was a hardy, easy to grow food crop that was a good alternative to grains which were struggling in the cold weather. It soon became the staple of other European peasants’ diets- like the Irish. (At least until the Irish started growing mostly one type of potato which was wiped out by a fungus in the Great Famine of 1845-1849. But that’s another story.)
The French peasants, however, resisted the potato as part of their diet for a number of reasons. Rumors abounded that the humble starch was evil or unhealthy. The French aristocracy soon began eating potatoes and wearing potato blossoms in an effort to popularize them among the lower classes and mitigate the famine, but to no avail. And as the famine persisted, so did the idea that overlaying was the cause of sudden and unexplained death of an infant.