Parents are being urged to carry out safe co-sleeping practices following the deaths of 14 babies under a year old in the ACT over the past decade.
The figures have been released by the ACT Children and Young People Death Review Committee, established last year to track the deaths of all Canberrans under the age of 18 to identify potential public health risks.
Committee chair Dr Penny Gregory said the figures were “tragic and surprising – surprising because these deaths are preventable.”
More worryingly, Dr Gregory warned the statistics may be higher than 14 deaths, as a number of baby deaths were still being investigated by the coroner and it appeared there had been a steady rise in unsafe sleeping deaths in the past few years.
“It is a very frustrating situation and the evidence that the number of deaths is increasing gives us cause for concern. Every one of these deaths is tragic,” Dr Gregory said.
She noted the ACT data mirrored recent data coming out of New South Wales and New Zealand, showing that the number of deaths involving co-sleeping was highest during the first year of life.
The New South Wales Child Death Review team’s annual report 2012, released late last month, found that 44 per cent of the 480 infants that died suddenly and unexpectedly in NSW since 2003 were infants that were co-sleeping. Twenty-five of these deaths alone occurred in 2012.
The NSW report found that “there is evidence to suggest that over 90 per cent of sudden and unexpected deaths in infancy are associated with preventable risk factors”.
Dr Gregory said the message that babies should not be left to sleep in situations where the risk of suffocation was high was not getting out.
In March 2013 the New Zealand Child and Youth Mortality Review Committee released a special report on the dangers of unsafe sleeping entitled 'Unintentional suffocation, foreign body inhalation and strangulation'.
The report included a review of the deaths of children in New Zealand that occurred in a place of sleep. Of the 50 children reviewed by the New Zealand Committee who died during sleep, 68 per cent of these deaths occurred when co-sleeping.
The NZ report found “that a considerable number of deaths that might have previously been labelled as sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) are attributable to unsafe sleeping situations.”
Dr Gregory said, “The intention of the Committee is to examine this issue further and identify anything that will help to educate parents, professionals and the community on ways to reduce the likelihood of ACT children dying when asleep, including co-sleeping, in the future.”
While it was surprising that the safe-sleep message was not being adhered to in a city such as Canberra – where the population was well-educated and well-informed - Dr Gregory said there were pockets of disadvantage in Canberra where babies could be at additional risk.
“There are currently a number of organisations who are giving out safe sleeping messages and the committee would like to make sure that all families in the Canberra community with infant children receive and act on these messages,” she said.
According to the Sids and Kids Australian recommendations, the safest place for a baby to sleep is in their own safe sleeping space, in the same room as their parent or caregiver, for the first six to twelve months of their life.
Dr Gregory warned that if parents chose to co-sleep with their babies they needed to follow a number of steps to reduce the risk of the baby suffocating.
She stressed that countries with a long history of apparently successful co-sleeping had very different sleeping arrangements from Australia.
These included the bed being low and on the floor, or a hard surface, no pillows, or only small firm pillows, which could not smother an infant accidently. Similarly, blankets and bedding are small and thin.
A person should never co-sleep with an infant if:
- the adult bed is unsafe, for example a sofa bed, couch or water bed
- they, or their partner, are under the influence of alcohol
- they, or their partner, are under the influence of prescription or recreational drugs, including marijuana
- they, or their partner, are exhausted
- they are a smoker, or if their partner smokes
- the infant was born prematurely or small
- there are other children or adults in the bed, or
- the infant could slip under adult bedding, such as a doona or pillow or down between the bed and the wall.