The number of babies dying from cot death could increase as austerity cuts force vulnerable families into unsuitable living conditions, the head of an infant-death charity has warned.

The Government's healthcare reforms could also put babies' lives at risk and vital services could be lost as the NHS is forced to restructure and make efficiency savings, according to Francine Bates, chief executive of the Foundation for the Study of Infant Deaths (SID).

She also described the axing of a Department of Health leaflet that was previously sent to every new parent as "very disappointing". The leaflet set out the risks to babies and advised parents on how to minimise the dangers.

Ms Bates said: "If the socio-economic conditions worsen for these vulnerable families then more babies could be at risk. Met Police working in this area [sudden infant death] are increasingly saying that the housing conditions some people are living in with their very small babies is atrocious."

The "Back to Sleep" campaign launched in 1991 urged parents to put their babies to sleep on their backs, overturning previous advice from childcare experts. Within five years of the launch of the campaign, unexplained infant deaths had dropped by 70 per cent.

Smoking is now the biggest risk for cot death so Ms Bates has organised the first seminar for researchers and smoking-cessation experts who will meet on Thursday, chaired by Anne Milton, the Public Health minister.

Ms Bates said: "Smoking has a massive impact on the health of an unborn baby. If all smokers stopped immediately it would reduce the number of cot deaths by up to 50 per cent."