The Foundation for the Study of Infant Deaths fears that last year's 6 per cent increase could signal complacency. The figures reverse a downward trend which had seen cot deaths fall by 61 per cent between 1991 and 1995. The charity is urging parents to follow its six-point plan, Reduce the Risk, which resulted in the dramatic reduction in cot deaths in the first half of this decade.
Last year, 441 babies died unexpectedly within a year of birth in England and Wales, a rate of about 70 out of every 100,000 live births, according to figures drawn up by the Office for National Statistics. Provisional figures provided by the foundation suggest there were a further 43 cot deaths in Scotland and 15 in Northern Ireland, bringing the national total to 499.
Cot death, or Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, is the most common killer of babies aged between one month and one year, accounting for the death of almost 10 babies each week. The number of deaths is substantially greater than the number of children under-15 killed on the roads, or who develop cancer.
Experts said it may materialise that the increase is a statistical anomaly. Richard Cooke, professor of paediatric medicine at Liverpool University, said: "Perhaps this is a blip. It's too early to rush around in a mad panic. I suspect it's just a wobble. We couldn't expect the figures to keep going down. What's interesting is that a third of the increase is made up of changes in Northern Ireland and in Scotland there was actually a decrease."
Professor Cooke said cot death was more prevalent in less privileged groups, due to changes in child management. "It's not a single disorder, it's a result of many things impinging on a vulnerable child. It used to be widely spread, but we are finding more and more that it occurs less in better off families. In a recent survey in Liverpool, more then 80 per cent of mothers whose babies died of cot death, were heavy smokers. And heavy smoking amongst mothers tends to be in the poorer groups," he said.
Joyce Epstein, the foundation's secretary-general, said: "While parents shouldn't feel unduly panicked, any increase is a worry, every single baby's death is tragic. We don't know exactly why this has occurred, we hope it is just a one-off rise. What is clear is that further research is still needed to shed light on to why babies die."
Doctors advise parents to follow the foundation's six-point Reduce the Risk plan:
Put babies on their backs to sleep;
Cut smoking during pregnancy - fathers too;
Don't let anyone smoke in the same room as the baby;
Don't let the baby get too hot;
Keep the baby's head uncovered and
If the baby is unwell, seek medical help promptly.Reuse content