A population-based study was performed to determine whether substance abuse during the perinatal period may be a risk factor for sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). The incidence of SIDS was studied in 2143 infants of substance-abusing mothers (ISAM) born in Los Angeles County during 1986 and 1987 who were reported to the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services because of a history of drug exposure or positive urine test results in the mother, infant, or both. By comparing the ISAM birth reports with records of autopsy-proven SIDS in Los Angeles County, we found 19 SIDS cases in the population of 2143 ISAM, a SIDS rate of 8.87 cases per 1000 ISAM (95% confidence interval 5.3 to 13.8). This was significantly higher than the SIDS rate for the non-ISAM general population: 396 SIDS deaths among 325,372 live births, an incidence rate of 1.22 cases per 1000 births, p less than 0.00001. The age of ISAM at death was 99 +/- 63 (mean +/- SD) days compared with 91 +/- 52 days for the non-ISAM population (not significant). The incidence of SIDS was significantly greater in male infants, during the winter months, in black infants, and in non-Hispanic white infants in the non-ISAM population. Such differences were not observed in the ISAM group. A greater incidence of symptomatic apnea was reported before SIDS for the ISAM than for the non-ISAM population (22% vs 5.4%, p = 0.022). We conclude that ISAM have a higher incidence of SIDS than the non-ISAM general population. However, it was not possible to separate maternal substance abuse from other confounding variables that may also have had an impact on SIDS risk in the ISAM group.