A baby is said to have suffered cot death or sudden infant death syndrome when
an apparently healthy baby dies suddenly and for no obvious reason. The post
mortem also finds no cause for the death so the reason for the tragic event
remains a mystery.
Sadly the parents will have put to bed an apparently happy and well baby but
on returning to the cot a few hours later or the next morning find their baby
dead. Death happens quietly, the bedclothes are not disturbed so there has been
no struggling indicating that the baby was not in distress or pain. Parents
may feel terrible guilt, but there have been times when babies travelling in
the car with their parents have quietly slipped away, so sometimes even if the
parents are close cot death can still happen.
Cot death occurs in infants up to the age of 12 months, but is most common in
the first 6 months of life. We still don’t know all there is to know about cot
death, but there are things which can influence its frequency.
The campaign, Back to Sleep, which recommends placing babies on their back
or side to sleep, reduced the rate of cot death from 2 per 1,000 to 0.45 per
1,000 so reduced the rate by three quarters.
The Back to Sleep campaign has had the greatest effect on reducing cot death.
However, there are further recommendations that are helpful. Babies who have
had their baby immunisations have a lower risk than those who miss immunisations.
Your baby should sleep in your room for the first 6 months. The bedroom should
be warm but not hot around 68-70°F ( 21-23°C). Babies should be wearing something
like a vest and babygrow but not a hat, and covered by blankets that can be
tucked in securely under the mattress. Pillows, duvets and loose bedclothes
should be avoided especially if there is a chance that they could cover the
baby’s head if he slipped down the cot.
Many parents will take their baby into bed with them for comfort. This is fine,
but you should not have your baby in bed with you to sleep if you smoke, have
been taking alcohol before going to bed, are very tired or on tranquillisers.
Parents of new babies are frequently tired because of the demands of the babies
and broken nights' sleep. Please do not fall asleep with your baby on a sofa
or settee as this increases the chance of cot death a lot, possibly by accidental
What causes cot death?
Despite a lot of research, much funded by the Foundation for the Study of Infant
Death (FSID) we still don't know much about the actual cause, although there
is quite a lot of advice as to how to reduce the chances of cot death. There
have been all sorts of other ideas like the fumes from old cot mattresses, but
these haven't been found to be important.
There have been attempts to try to predict which groups of infants are at a
high risk of cot death and so what can be done to prevent it. Unfortunately
this hasn't been useful for individual babies but has produced the recommendations
in this article.
Some professionals have suggested that some babies who apparently suffer cot
death have been murdered by their parents. Such suggestions are obviously very
hurtful to many parents, but, sadly, we know some babies are abused by their
parents, sometimes to such an extent that they die. It is important that these
abusing parents are detected even if the many innocent parents are upset in
What about the next baby?
The next baby after a cot death is both a happy and worrying time for the parents.
The organisation Care of the Next Infant (CONI) has leaflets that can be obtained
from FSID below. Many of these next babies go home from hospital on a breathing