Exclusive: Parents given cot deaths warning

PARENTS are being warned about the dangers of sleeping with their babies as health chiefs expressed concern about the number of infants who have died in tragedies in North Yorkshire.

Midwives and child health professionals are now briefing new parents across the county to raise awareness of the risks of sharing a bed with their babies.

The campaign aims to reduce the number of babies who suffer Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), which is also known as cot death and accounts for about 300 fatalities every year in the UK.

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A study which was carried out last year revealed that while the overall rate of SIDS has decreased, the number of deaths linked to "co-sleeping" – where parents fall asleep with their children – had risen.

Co-sleeping was found to be responsible for 54 per cent of deaths in babies who suffered SIDS, and there have been at least seven deaths due to the problem in North Yorkshire alone in the last two years.

Dr Sally Smith is a consultant paediatrician at York Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and is the designated doctor for child deaths throughout North Yorkshire.

She maintained that the awareness campaign was not aiming to prevent parents from cuddling their child in the bed – as long as they did not fall asleep with the child nestled next to them.

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Dr Smith added: "We certainly don't want to discourage parents from showing the love and affection which they should be displaying to their baby, but we need to make them aware of the risks of co-sleeping.

"We all know that newborn babies can leave parents extremely tired, and sometimes the easiest option may seem to be to bring the child into bed if they are crying and need comforting.

"But the safest place for your baby to sleep is on their back, in a crib or cot in a room with you for the first six months of their life.

"As people cannot fully control their movements when they are asleep they could roll over in their sleep onto a baby, or the baby may fall out of bed and be injured.

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"By learning about the dangers of co-sleeping, we hope we can reduce the number of avoidable deaths in this area."

The exact causes of SIDS remain a mystery, although co-sleeping has been identified as one of the main risks that can lead to the child's sudden death. Parents who have been drinking alcohol or smoking, especially if they have lit a cigarette in the same room as the child, are also increasing the chance of a SIDS tragedy.

One of the most obvious risks is that a parent who has fallen asleep in the same bed could roll over and smother their child - and the threat is amplified if their reactions are dulled by the effects of alcohol or medication.

However, the temperature of the room where the infant is has also been linked to SIDS, and tragedies are thought to have happened when babies have struggled to breath after becoming caught in their bedclothes.

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The risks of SIDS also increase if the baby was born with a low birth weight of less than five-and-a-half pounds or was born prematurely before the 37th week of the pregnancy.

A child death overview panel, which includes health officials as well as representatives from North Yorkshire Police and care services, was launched in April 2008 in North Yorkshire as part of a national network established by the previous Government.

The panel in North Yorkshire carried out the research that identified the risks associated with co-sleeping, which has led to the launch of the new awareness campaign.

Leaflets and posters are being distributed to GP surgeries across the county, and thermometers are being handed out to parents to help them monitor room temperatures at home.