Editorial: Government needs fund babies' sleep pods

Pushing to end cultural practice instead of funding life-saving devices shortsighted.
Our report today reveals these bed baskets have been credited with helping produce the first drop in Maori infant mortality rates in a decade. Photo / iStock
Our report today reveals these bed baskets have been credited with helping produce the first drop in Maori infant mortality rates in a decade. Photo / iStock

The official mind moves in strange ways. The Ministry of Health refuses to fund a simple sleeping pod for babies so they might more safely sleep alongside their mothers.

Our report today reveals these bed baskets have been credited with helping produce the first drop in Maori infant mortality rates in a decade.

Coroners have recommended them, physicians familiar with the problem known as Sudden Unexpected Death in Infancy vouch for them, organisations raise funds to provide them and international health networks praise them. But the ministry is not convinced.

New Zealand has one of the worst rates of sudden infant death in the developed world. More than half of these babies have been suffocated by a parent sleeping beside them.

The rate for Maori babies is eight times that of the general population.

"Co-sleeping" is a strong cultural habit for Maori mothers and often defies the efforts of health professionals to discourage it.

But not all professionals let defiance of their advice cloud their judgment when they see a simple cheap device that would lessen risk. Some district health boards provide the woven "wahakura", or plastic "pepi-pods", from discretionary funds.

Not the ministry. The funds it provides to boards for "holistic prevention strategies" to reduce these deaths comes with a strict condition that the money must not be used for pepi-pods or wahakura. Why?

While they "may well have protected some babies," explains Dr Pat Tuohy, the ministry's chief adviser on child health, "the evidence that they are the 'magic bullet' is at best circumstantial." The "magic bullet" is a device politicians use for whatever suits their purpose.

When they want to promote a suite of possible solutions they say there is no magic bullet. When presented with a patently useful proposal they do not like, they say there is a magic bullet but this is not it.

It is clear the ministry wants only one solution and that is: stop sleeping beside babies. Few would dispute that would be the ideal solution. But a pod sturdy enough to withstand the movements of a large sleeping adult is surely better than nothing.

The ministry has gone to great trouble to imagine some possible hazards. In her story today, reporter Olivia Carville reveals documents from 2012 showing the ministry drafted a $250,000 contract for a supply of pepi-pods that year, but 12 days later held an internal meeting and decided the pods might be worse than nothing.

Among the "increased risks" it postulated were the baby overheating, the pod overturning and babies' arms hitting the plastic sides. To give those speculative possibilities more weight than actual incidents of unprotected babies being squashed, smothered, strangled by blankets or fatally wedged down the side of a bed is absurd.

The lower rate of sudden unexpected infant death in those districts where health boards have supplied the baby baskets speaks for itself.

The Government needs to ensure that zealotry in the promotion of healthy behaviour is not clouding its officials' judgment on practical proposals. It does not matter that bed pods might facilitate an undesirable practice - sleeping with a baby - if it saves the babies' lives.

Clearly for many Maori the practice remains highly desirable and they refuse to change. It is the ministry that must wake up.

- NZ Herald

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