In order to describe ethnic differences in the incidence of the sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) records of all livebirths in the State of Victoria, Australia, 1985-1989, excluding those who died in the first month of life, were linked to death certificates. Cases were defined as infants dying with a diagnosis of SIDS between 1 month and 1 year of age (n = 601) from the cohort of 308,052 neonatal survivors. Ethnicity was defined by the mother's country of birth. The SIDS incidence was 2.04/1000 in infants of Australian-born mothers. The relative risk of SIDS was 0.28 (95% confidence interval (CI) 0.15, 0.55) in infants whose mothers had been born in Southern Europe and 0.48 (95% CI 0.29, 0.78) in infants whose mothers had been born in Asia. SIDS in infants of Australian-born mothers was associated with low maternal age, high parity, marital status other than married, male sex, multiple birth, low birthweight and preterm birth. After adjustment for those factors in a case-control analysis using a logistic regression model the adjusted odds ratio for SIDS was 0.34 (95% CI 0.17, 0.69) comparing infants whose mothers were born in Southern Europe with infants of Australian-born mothers, and 0.60 (95% CI 0.35, 1.04) for infants whose mothers were born in Asia, compared with infants of the Australian-born. Thus there are substantial ethnic differences in SIDS which are not explained by the classic social and perinatal risk factors.