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Sudden Infant Death Syndrome ("Back to Sleep" campaign)

Professor Peter Fleming, University of Bristol & UHBristol

In the mid-1980s it was recognised that the number of babies dying from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS, commonly referred to as cot death) had increased in many countries, but no-one knew quite why. Peter Fleming, Professor of Infant Health and Developmental Physiology, was just starting the Avon Cot Death Study when he read a Dutch report which suggested that putting babies to sleep on their fronts led to a high risk of cot death. Fleming immediately analysed the Avon data and found that indeed, 93 per cent of the babies who had died had been put to sleep lying on their fronts.

Initially researchers refused to believe that something as simple as this could have such a profound effect and it wasn't until a follow-up study in 1991 that Fleming felt confident enough to approach the government's health advisers with his findings. Following a high profile campaign on the issue by TV presenter Anne Diamond - who lost her own child through SIDS - the Government gave its official support to the study and launched the highly successful Back to Sleep campaign.

Up until two decades ago, cot death claimed the lives of 2,000 babies in the UK every year; that number has since been reduced by 80 per cent.

Much work has been done on this distressing syndrome, by Fleming and others, and parents have further been advised that for the first six months the safest place for a baby to sleep is in a cot by the parents' bedside. But new research by Dr Peter Blair, a Senior Research Fellow working alongside Fleming, reveals that this advice is just as important for an infant's day-time naps as it is for their night-time sleep. The new study found that the babies who died during the day were more likely to have been placed on their side than on their back for their day-time naps; they were more likely to be found with their heads covered by the bedclothes than the babies who didn't die; and, in particular, 75 per cent of the babies who died in the day-time were sleeping in a room where there was no adult present.

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