Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) accounts for the largest number of deaths during the first year of life in developed countries. The possible causes of SIDS are numerous and, to date, there is no adequate unifying pathological explanation for SIDS. Epidemiological studies have played a key role in identifying risk factors, knowledge of which has underpinned successful preventive programmes. This review critically assesses information on the main risk factors and causal hypotheses put forward for SIDS, focusing on research published since 1994. The overall picture that emerges from this review is that affected infants are not completely normal in development, but possess some inherent weakness, which may only become obvious when the infant is subjected to stress. Initially there may be some minor impairment or delay in development of respiratory, cardiovascular or neuromuscular function. None of these is likely to be sufficient, in isolation, to cause death and, provided the infant survives the first year of life, may no longer be of any significance. However, when a compromised infant is confronted with one or more stressful situations, several of which are now clearly identified as risk factors, and from which the majority of infants would normally escape, the combination may prove fatal.