Around 120 baby deaths could be prevented in the UK every year if parents stopped sharing beds with their children, research suggests.
A new study found that breastfed babies under the age of three months who sleep in their parents’ beds face a five-fold increased risk of cot death.
Researchers estimate that 40% of the 300 cot death cases which occur in the UK each year could be prevented if parents only brought children into their beds for comfort and feeding, but not sleeping.
At present, NHS officials only advise that parents should not bed share if they have been drinking alcohol, taking drugs or if they smoke.
But the authors of the latest study said that the guidance should be expanded to dissuade all bed sharing - especially with babies under three months.
The research, led by researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, examined data from five studies on cot death - also known as sudden infant death syndrome.
The authors examined the records of 1,472 cot death cases and 4,679 control cases.
They found that the risk of cot death among breastfed babies under three months increased with bed sharing, even when the parents did not smoke and the mother had not consumed alcohol or drugs.
Babies who slept in their parents’ beds had a five-fold increase of cot death compared to children who slept in a cot in the parents’ room.
The research, published in the BMJ Open, found that 22% of the cot death cases occurred when babies were sharing a bed with their parents. The authors estimate that 88% of such cot death cases would not have happened if bed sharing had been avoided.
The risk associated with bed sharing decreases as babies get older but if either parent was a smoker or the mother had drunk alcohol or used illegal drugs at any time since the child was born, the risk was greatly increased.
“Currently in the UK more than half of cot deaths occur while a baby is sleeping in the same bed as its parents,” said lead author of the study Professor Bob Carpenter from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
“Although it is clear that smoking and drinking greatly increase the risk of cot death while bed sharing, our study shows that there is in fact an increased risk for all babies under three months who bed share, even if their parents do not smoke or drink.
“If parents were made aware of the risks of sleeping with their baby, and room sharing was instead promoted in the same way that the ‘Back to Sleep’ campaign was promoted 20 years ago to advise parents to place their newborn infants to sleep on their backs, we could achieve a substantial reduction in cot death rates in the UK.
“Annually there are around 300 cot death cases in babies under a year old in the UK, and this advice could save the lives of up to 40% of those. Health professionals need to make a definite stand against all bed sharing, especially for babies under three months.”
Francine Bates, chief executive of the Lullaby Trust, formerly known as the Foundation for the Study of Infant Death, said the charity would be incorporating the new findings into “the evidence base which informs our recommendations” for parents.
“Our core message remains that the safest place for a baby to sleep for the first six months is in a crib or cot in the same room as a parent or carer,” she said.
Janine Stockdale, research fellow at the Royal College of Midwives, said: “The RCM is not against parents taking their child into bed with them for example for breastfeeding and to comfort the child.
“However, even when doing this parents need to be organised and very sensitive to how tired they are when they do this, for example it is easy to fall asleep when breastfeeding especially in the middle of the night.
“It should never be done at all if the parents are smokers, have had alcohol or are taking illegal drugs or drugs that cause drowsiness or have a condition that makes them feel sleepy,” she said.
Ms Stockdale added: “The RCM endorses the recommendations of UNICEF on co-sleeping; that is we recommend that safest place for baby to sleep is in a cot in his or her parent’s room and not in the bed with parents.”
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