Sleeping habits could be factor in cot deaths

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THE HABIT of Western mothers of sleeping separately from their babies could be an important - and overlooked - cause of cot death, according to a child health expert.

Professor David Davies, of the Department of Child Health, University of Wales in Cardiff, argues that, night and day, mothers should stay physically close to their babies for the first six to nine months.

In this way they become alert to very small changes in the baby's well-being, better able to detect the onset of an illness that could be dangerous at a vulnerable stage of life.

He says there is no proof this will protect a baby from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (Sids), 'but at the same time there is no evidence this care practice is harmful'.

Professor Davies says that mothers, seeking a quiet life and sleeping in different rooms, is a relatively new evolutionary phenomenon and that the study of cot deaths in other ethnic populations shows that it is rare in many parts of the world where poverty, a risk factor for cot death in the West, is a way of life.

Writing in the new edition of the influential Archives of Disease in Childhood, Professor Davies argues that a mother's vigilance in the early months may confer a level of protection that is lost when culture dictates that babies be speedily taught to spend hours alone.

He accepts the incidence of cot death has diminished since the advice was broadcast to lay babies to sleep on their backs, but he challenges the accepted practice of training babies to be alone.

'Just as at one time health professionals encouraged mothers to lie babies prone (on their faces), so there was also the attitude that babies needed to establish independence early in life. What better way to achieve this than by encouraging the baby to endure increasingly long periods of solitude, soon after birth?'

He says that leaving a baby alone for long periods might lead to the worsening of 'minor clinical illness, such as snuffles or temperature, which if detected could be approached and dealt with'.

Professor Davies points out that, while infant death rates were high among Asian people, baby deaths from Sids were not common in these ethnic groups. Asian households are often busier than white households and babies are frequently picked up 'contributing to creating a home environment that is often in stark contrast with that of the nuclear family unit of mother-father-child, or mother-child, which is typical in white families in this country'.

In Britain, cot deaths decreased by two-thirds between 1988 and 1992, from 1,587 to 531, but remain the biggest killer of babies over a week old.