BACKGROUND: Surfactant protein A (SP-A) is synthesized in the lung and is a part of the innate immune system. The aim of this study was to evaluate the expression of SP-A in lung tissue from fetuses, infants, children and adults with special regard to sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). METHODS: A total of 160 cases were studied; 19 fetuses and neonates, 59 SIDS and 49 explained infant deaths below 1 year of age, 19 toddlers and 14 adults. Immunohistochemical detection of SP-A using monoclonal antibodies was performed by microscopy of lung tissue specimens collected at autopsy. A scoring system was developed enabling semi-quantitative estimation of staining intensity and distribution. RESULTS: SP-A was detected in the terminal bronchioles and alveolar spaces of fetuses >35 weeks gestation. The intra-alveolar SP-A expression increased in the perinatal period followed by a marked drop in infants aged between 1 week and 5 months. Infants aged >5 months had abundant SP-A expression corresponding to older children and adults. There was no difference in the age distribution between cases of SIDS and explained deaths. CONCLUSIONS: The apparent drop in SP-A expression takes place in the first months after birth, corresponding with the classical age peak of SIDS. We therefore hypothesize that low expression of SP-A may be related in some as-yet undetermined way to the increased risk of SIDS at that age.