Parents are set to be offered new guidance on safely sharing a bed with their baby, following an increase in the number of cot deaths.
The guidance is to be made available both online and across maternity wards in the UK, with the aim of encouraging more ‘open conversations’ about co-sleeping and the risks associated with it.
A rise in cot deaths
Last year saw a rise in the number of babies dying from unexplained causes, according to figures published by the Office for National Statistics.
There were a total of 219 deaths caused by sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), or without a known cause, in England and Wales in 2016 – an increase from 195 the previous year.
But while the number of SIDS deaths has seen a decline over the past 25 years, the new advice for parents and health professionals aims to help minimise this number further, and promote greater awareness of the risks associated with co-sleeping.
“We know that it may be difficult to have open conversations about the risks of bed sharing when talking to parents about safe sleeping,” says Wendy Nicholson, national lead nurse for children, young people and families at Public Health England (PHE).
“These important new resources will support health professionals’ conversations with parents who might share a bed with their baby, to help more families get the right advice on how to keep their baby safe.
“We would always encourage parents to talk to their midwife or health visitor for further advice.”
What does the NHS advise?
While it is not known exactly why some babies die from SIDS, or cot death, experts do say that placing a baby to sleep on their back helps to reduce the risk, according to the NHS.
It is also known that there is a link between SIDS and sleeping with your baby on a bed, sofa or chair – also known as co-sleeping.
The safest place for a baby to sleep for the first six months is in a cot in the same room as its parents, rather than in the same bed.
The risks of co-sleeping are increased if your baby was born premature (born before 37 weeks) and had a low birth weight (less than 2.kg, or 5.5lb), while it also carries the risk that you may roll over during the night and suffocate your baby.
NHS guidance recommends the following to help minimise the risk of SIDS:
- Place your baby on their back to sleep, in a cot in the same room as you, for the first six months
- Don’t smoke during your pregnancy or breastfeeding, and don’t let anyone smoke in the same room as your baby
- Don’t share a bed with your baby if you have been drinking alcohol, if you take drugs, or you’re a smoker
- Never sleep with your baby on a sofa or armchair
- Don’t let your baby get too hot or cold
- Keep your baby’s head uncovered. Their blanket should be tucked in no higher than their shoulders
- Place your baby in the “feet to foot” position, with their feet at the end of the cot or moses basket
New guidance for parents
The new guidance, produced by PHE, Durham University researchers, the Lullaby Trust and the Unicef Baby Friendly Initiative, recognises that many parents choose to sleep next to their baby, or may unintentionally end up doing so.
Among the advice it recommends avoiding pillows and duvets, ensuring babies cannot fall out of the bed or become trapped between the mattress and wall, and never leaving them alone.
It also warns against sleeping with a baby on a sofa or armchair, as this increases the risk of SIDS by 50 times, as well as avoiding sharing the bed if they are a smoker, have recently drunk alcohol, if their baby was born prematurely, or weighed under 2.5kg at birth.
Jenny Ward, acting chief executive of the Lullaby Trust, said, “It is a reality that even if parents do not plan to co-sleep, many still fall asleep with their babies unintentionally.
“Babies can and do die in high risk co-sleeping situations.
“If given the right advice, parents can prepare for planned and unplanned co-sleeping that will help to mitigate those risks and reduce the chance of SIDS.”