International conference hears many sudden infant deaths preventable

24 Oct 2012 | Child & Youth Mortality Review Committee

New Zealand child mortality experts and international specialists exchanged knowledge and insights into sudden unexpected death in infancy (SUDI) at a conference in the United States recently.

Ten experts from New Zealand attended the conference in Baltimore on stillbirth, SUDI and infant survival.

One of them, Dr Nick Baker – a community paediatrician and Chair of the Child and Youth Mortality Review Committee (CYMRC) – told the conference about the death by unintended suffocation of 50 New Zealand babies.

These included situations where a parent or sibling sleeping with an infant accidentally suffocated them after moving in sleep, and cases where babies became wedged in gaps or other places.

Dr Baker says many SUDI deaths are preventable.

“Parents and caregivers need to be certain nothing can happen during sleep that makes it hard for their baby to breathe,” he says. “This conference was an excellent opportunity to provide updates on New Zealand’s work to prevent infant death and to learn from what is happening elsewhere.”

New Zealand has one of the worst rates of SUDI in the world, with about 60 babies dying of SUDI each year. Babies in the first three months of life – and especially in their first month – are most at risk.

The CYMRC, which operates under the umbrella of the Health Quality & Safety Commission, reviews deaths of children and young people aged 28 days to 24 years and provides advice on how to prevent further deaths.

Professor Barry Taylor, Professor of Paediatrics and Child Health, and Director of the Mortality Review Data Group at the University of Otago, presented a paper on international comparisons of sudden infant death. He says another 48 babies would live to see their first birthday each year if New Zealand had the same infant death rate as the Netherlands.

Another presenter at the conference, Dr David Tipene-Leach, outlined research into the use of wahakura and pepi-pods, two infant sleeping spaces designed to be used in a shared bed.

“A major research group in England is now proposing that we should teach people how to share beds safely. Two New Zealand studies are investigating ways of doing this, and there was real interest at the conference in the use of the wahakura and pedi-pod,” says Dr Tipene-Leach.

Meanwhile, Stephanie Cowan from Change for our Children won recognition for her conference poster ‘womb for improvement’, which described an innovative approach to reduce smoking in South Auckland. The programme, Te Awatea, includes a large network of people trained as smokefree champions for unborn babies in their whanau and communities.

Professor Ed Mitchell Professor of Child Health Research, Paediatrics at the University of Auckland, who also attended the conference, says New Zealand led the world with its ‘back to sleep’ campaign in the early 1990s, based on research by himself and others. Their studies showed that putting babies to sleep on their backs decreased their risk of sudden death.

“The success of this campaign has been marked by 3000 babies in New Zealand living to have a first birthday who would otherwise have died,” says Professor Mitchell.

Last updated 24/10/2012