Olivia Carville is an investigative reporter with the NZ Herald.

$1.5m plea to prevent baby deaths

Health Minister Jonathan Coleman urged to fund safe sleep bassinets after his ministry restricts support for them.
Onyx-Raiden Haare-Tawhai was only nine days old when she silently suffocated.
Onyx-Raiden Haare-Tawhai was only nine days old when she silently suffocated.

New Zealand's leading cot death expert will urge Health Minister Jonathan Coleman to fund safe sleep bassinets in a private meeting today.

Professor Ed Mitchell, world-renowned infant death researcher of the University of Auckland, will meet the minister behind closed doors to request $1.5 million to roll out pepi-pods to at-risk families across the country.

The meeting comes on the heels of a Herald investigation that found the Ministry of Health has secretly restricted the reach of pepi-pods, which allow mothers to safely sleep with their babies, because of safety fears that were never discussed with experts, the agencies distributing the bassinets or the coroners who recommended them.

New Zealand has the worst rate of Sudden Unexpected Death in Infancy (SUDI) in the industrialised world, largely because of the high rate of Maori infant deaths, attributed to high smoking rates and the cultural custom of bed-sharing.

Onyx-Raiden Haare-Tawhai was only nine days old when she silently suffocated last September.

Her mother, Janina Tawhai, 23, was given a pepi-pod, but said she was told by hospital nurses that a bassinet or cot was safer for her baby.

She said she put the pepi-pod in the closet and never used it. Instead, Onyx either slept in her bassinet or in bed with her parents.

On the morning Onyx died, she was sleeping with Tawhai on the couch of their state house in Panmure. She was pale and cold when Tawhai woke up.

"I already knew that you're not supposed to have baby in bed, but I did it with my other three kids and I was always tired and I didn't get much help," Tawhai said.

Hastings GP Dr David Tipene-Leach, who designed the original safe sleep bassinet in 2006, said it was cases like that of Onyx that showed why the pepi-pod programme needed to be rolled out urgently.

The programme was about more than handing out $100 plastic sleep bassinets to families, but also about educating to prevent SUDI, he said.

The programme would inform mothers that babies naturally breathe through their noses and that a newborn's nose can be easily squashed.

They would also be told that babies exposed to smoke or born pre-term don't have the ability to struggle when they can no longer breathe and usually suffocate in silence when their nose is covered.

"This is all about giving people enough education so they understand why they have to do it this way," Tipene-Leach said.

Last week, Tipene-Leach, Mitchell and Stephanie Cowan, who has distributed 15,000 pepi-pods through her organisation Change For Our Children, wrote to the minister seeking a meeting to discuss the programme.

Today, Mitchell will meet Coleman on behalf of the trio.

- NZ Herald

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