OBJECTIVE Fetal hemoglobin (HbF) levels in the hemolysates obtained from infants who died from sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) are reported to be markedly increased compared with controls. This finding could have been explained by increased HbF synthesis caused by episodes of hypoxemia in the SIDS infants. A prospective study in a group of infants being monitored at home after an apparent life-threatening event (ALTE) and considered at increased risk for SIDS was conducted with an improved ribonuclease protection assay. The ribonuclease protection assay allowed for the quantitation of [gamma/(gamma+beta)]-globin mRNAs, which has a highly significant correlation with the levels of HbF synthesis. METHODS Thirty-five infants who were admitted for an ALTE were included in the study. All infants were at home under surveillance with a cardiorespiratory monitor and followed in an apnea clinic with monthly appointments. Seventy-three blood samples were obtained between 38 and 61 weeks of postconceptional age. For control purposes, a similar group of 37 normal infants (99 samples) whose HbF synthesis was previously determined were included. RESULTS Mean [gamma/(gamma+beta)]-globin mRNAs were increased in the ALTE group at 42 to 45 and 46 to 49 weeks of postconceptional age (mean: 55.2 +/- 17.4% and 33.9 +/- 14%) in comparison with HbF synthesis in controls (mean: 42.6 +/- 13.7% and 23.6 +/- 9.8%). CONCLUSIONS The data obtained in this report from infants who were considered at risk for SIDS show that HbF synthesis is increased between 42 and 49 weeks of postconceptional age. Determining HbF synthesis as described in this study may have value as a marker for episodes of hypoxemia for certain infants who are at risk for SIDS.