Ogbanje or Sudden Infant Death Syndrome…what happened to Abby’s siblings?


imageAbby and I are “good nurse friends” (as we refer to each other). Whilst having lunch one day, she told me that her mother lost two babies before she was born. “They were Ogbanje children” she said. When she (Abby) was born, she was marked on the cheeks, so that if she died and dared to reincarnate, she would be detected. We talked animatedly about the Ogbanje or Abiku children in Nigeria. They are believed to be spirit children who come to torture families and then die and go back to the gods. Interestingly they are mostly girls! Just as we finished our meals, Abby asked me “Do you think my siblings died from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) rather than the Ogbanje stuff?” I recall thinking there was no way it could have been SIDS! It didn’t exist then, and it definitely did not have exist in Nigeria or Africa as a whole. If they said the babies were Ogbanje, they were Ogbanje! It didn’t matter that I promote prevention of SIDS as a Specialist Public Health Nurse, all I knew was, culture was culture, work was work. After all, Soyinka (1967) wrote about Abiku. Although I don’t believe in their existence now, I was determined not to let go of the stories of my childhood. They were my treasured relics.

A Blend of Science and Abby’s Story

Anyway, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) also known as cot death, occurs when an apparently well child dies unexpectedly without any known cause. There are no known causes of SIDS, but certain risk factors contribute to it.

Abby narrated that on both occasions, her mother had breastfed the babies and fallen asleep beside them. She woke up and found them dead (co-sleeping is a common factor in SIDS cases). I asked her why she thought she survived since her mother must have co-slept with her as well. Abby said that when she was a baby, a native doctor advised her mother NOT to sleep with her as she was evil. So after breastfeeding each night, her mother slept on a mattress on the floor, whilst Abby slept on her mum’s bed alone. Abby believes that she survived because of that. Seeing the conviction on her face, I dared not argue.

My drive home was a blur because it dawned on me that Abby may have been right. I went searching the internet for SIDS awareness in Nigeria. I found out that although tackling infant mortality is a major priority in Nigeria, there are no records of SIDS incidences or prevalence there. Being passionate about children’s health, I started discussing SIDS risk factors with new parents and anyone. I encountered a lot of disagreements (especially with regards to co-sleeping). In some cases it was shock at the fact that SIDS exists. I started noticing (more) the trend of dressing new babies in very warm winter clothes and covering their heads as well. In the hot or cold weather, that’s a major risk. Overheating is a common risk factor of SIDS, and since babies expel heat from the head, covering it, is a “no no”! There are other risk factors of SIDS, which can be found here.

After Thoughts…

I haven’t discussed the issue with Abby again, nonetheless it got me thinking. I realised that in all my exposure to evidence-based studies as a nurse, my culture and beliefs still influence my thoughts. Nonetheless, I believe that millions of child deaths in Africa are erroneously attributed to evil spirits. Many may have been due to SIDS. I strongly recommend that governments and individuals should do more to reduce the risks of SIDS. I admire Abby’s ability to correlate her family’s loss with her nursing knowledge. I’m almost certain it’s a way of healing for her. Would that line of thought heal her mother?…I may never know.

Please watch this video on SIDS courtesy of YouTube. Knowing much saves lives. Help eradicate SIDS.