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Cot deaths: saving more than 100,000 young lives worldwide

16 August 2013

Cot deaths in the UK have fallen by 80 per cent over the last 20 years following groundbreaking research by Peter Fleming, Professor of Infant Health and Developmental Physiology and Dr Pete Blair, Senior Research Fellow and their team

It is probably fair to say that nearly all new parents in the UK will already know or be advised to put their newborn to sleep on their back and not to risk overheating by wrapping them in too many blankets. But they are unlikely to know much about the pioneering epidemiologist from Bristol and his team whose work has led to such an extraordinary turnaround in the number of cases.

Two decades ago, up to 2,000 babies in the UK died each year from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), commonly referred to as cot death. Professor Fleming and his team conducted a series of surveys in the mid 1980s in a bid to discover the causes of SIDS. These appeared to identify three main risk factors. Parents who were laying their babies to sleep face down, were covering them in too many blankets, and smoking near the infant had a much greater chance of suffering the devastation of cot death.

Published in 1990, the results were greeted with initial scepticism. How could such simple behaviours contribute to SIDS? The team confirmed their initial findings in a follow up study from 1989 based in the Southwest of England which gave Fleming enough evidence to approach the government’s health advisers with recommendations based on the research.

After this successful trial, which showed a 60 per cent fall in cot deaths over less than two years, the government gave its official support to the study in 1991 by launching the famous “Back to Sleep” campaign. Fronted by TV personality Anne Diamond, whose own family had suffered the distress of cot death, the campaign’s successful message instructed parents to lay their babies on their backs to sleep. After just two years, the number of cot deaths fell nationally by 70 per cent, or the equivalent of 12 babies a week. Today, this research has prevented approximately 10,000 deaths in the UK, and at least 100,000 worldwide.

Ongoing research funded by the Foundation for the Study of Infant Deaths (FSID) has led to further recommendations from Fleming’s team. Parents are now advised that their babies should not sleep in a room without an adult present both day and night and that they should not ever “co-sleep” with their baby on a sofa or in a bed after taking medication, drugs or alcohol.

Professor Fleming and his team continue to work hard uncovering potential causes for SIDS and are involved in policy decisions to develop better approaches to the investigation and care of families after unexpected childhood deaths, where, to add to the distress, parents can sometimes be suspected of wrongdoing.

Following a number of high profile miscarriages of justice where parents were jailed after their babies died of SIDS, Fleming took part in the Kennedy Committee which put forward practices to the Government developed by Fleming and his team in the South West of England. The approach has been implemented nationally as part of the Children Act 2004, and integrated into Department for Children, Schools and Families publications such as ‘Working Together to Safeguard Children’, and training DVDs like ‘Why Jason Died’.

In recognition of this work, Fleming, the man behind the now-familiar advice to parents everywhere, was named as one of the UK’s pioneers of science in ‘Eureka UK’, a book celebrating 50 years of life-changing research by university academics throughout the UK.

Key facts

  • Research findings in the 1980s led to the government’s “Back to Sleep” campaign in the 90s
  • 100,000 babies saved worldwide
  • UK cot deaths reduced by 80 per cent over two decades
Cot deaths: saving more than 100,000 young lives worldwide
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