Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS or cot death) was the major cause of post-neonatal infant death in many countries in the late 1970s and 1980s. There is now very strong evidence that public intervention campaigns targeting the prone sleeping position, which had been identified by epidemiological studies as a major risk factor, were followed by substantial falls in the rate of SIDS. In the present review we discuss the evidence on which current recommendations for the prevention of SIDS are based. The prone sleeping position is now clearly causally associated with SIDS. Further reductions in SIDS may be produced by recommending the back sleeping position as opposed to the side position. Maternal smoking in pregnancy and bed sharing by infants of mothers who smoke are also strongly associated with SIDS, but have been harder to influence. Paternal smoking has also been implicated, although the magnitude of the reported risk is small. Finally, breastfeeding, pacifier use and having the infant sharing the parents bedroom, but not the bed, may also reduce risk. Continued reductions in SIDS mortality will require innovative public health education to target these major risk factors, while building on the "back to sleep" approach.