Too many Maori and Pacific babies are dying from sudden unexpected death despite a record low in the number of deaths, health advocates say.

The annual death toll from sudden unexpected death in infants (SUDI) has dropped from about 200 in the late 1980s to a record of about 57 deaths in 2011, Child and Youth Mortality Review Committee (CYMRC) chairman Nick Baker said.

An estimated 3000 babies have been saved in the past 20 years because of efforts to stop SUDI, and the international 'Back to Sleep' campaign has been attributed for the dramatic decrease in deaths, CYMRC said.

But the committee has recommended urging the delivery of culturally appropriate messages because of the rate of death in Maori and Pacific infants being significantly higher than for European babies.


Whakawhetu, which promotes the prevention of SUDI for Maori, and Pacific Mother and Infant Service, Taha, have backed the recommendation.

"Although we have seen a reduction in infant deaths over the past 20 years, there is still work to be done to protect our babies from sudden infant death,'' Whakawhetu general manager Kodi Hapi said.

Dr Teuila Percival of Taha said the whole family and other carers needed to be motivated to apply safe sleeping practices for their infants.

"The preventable loss of a single child is one too many.''

Ms Hapi said everyone needed to work together so that Maori and Pacific families could "make every sleep a safe sleep for their little ones''.

The committee's latest report on unintentional suffocation, foreign body inhalation and strangulation, showed death caused by suffocation was one of the three leading causes of unintentional injury deaths in New Zealand between the ages of 1 month to 24 years.

Dr Baker said while he was heartened with the latest figures, more still needed to be done to keep babies safe from harm.

"There has been some fantastic work happening within communities and with health professionals and others in recent years, and this is having a positive impact on infant death rates.

"At the same time, it's clear that too many babies and young children are continuing to die from preventable harm, so the challenge to us all is to really take on board messages about the best ways to keep our children safe.

"It is not uncommon for deaths to occur when young ones are in unfamiliar surroundings, less actively supervised than usual, busy with other activities, or in the presence of intoxicated or distracted caregivers.''

It was important to have good routines and safety measures around children to keep them safe, Dr Baker said.

"We were especially concerned to see that the rate of death in Maori and Pacific infants is significantly higher than for European infants,'' Dr Baker said.

"We're not sure exactly why this is, although differences in the rate of smoking during pregnancy may be a factor. We know that infants exposed to cigarette smoke in pregnancy tend to be smaller and are more prone to suffocation.''

The report made a number of recommendations that Dr Baker said supported government initiatives to improve support for vulnerable children, enhance smoking cessation programmes, put in place better systems to engage across the health system, increase the availability of safe sleeping spaces, encourage policies and staff training in district health boards, and place greater emphasis on the safety of cots and bassinets.

Some tips for keeping babies safe:
* put babies to sleep on their backs and in their own beds;

* make sure their rooms are smokefree and not too hot;

* giving them plenty of room to breathe; and

* provide a sober caregiver.

Recent Cases
* Last week Sybil Harrison and Elray Marsh of Te Puhia were sentenced after being found guilty of endangering the life of their baby who died of SUDI. They earlier admitted putting their 10-week-old baby boy to bed with Harrison, who had been drinking heavily. Harrison was sentenced to 12 months' intensive supervision and Marsh to six months' supervision and 250 hours' community work.

* Rotorua 2-month-old Tahi Elvis Edwards died as a result of accidental asphyxia due to an unsafe sleeping environment with his mother. His mother Ngaire Kura Tukiwaho was jailed for the death of baby Tahi. He was sleeping cuddled into his mother's shoulder in the back seat of a car while she was heavily intoxicated on January 5, 2011, when he slipped under her arm and suffocated.

* A 2-day-old girl died in February 2011 of "possible accidental asphyxia during breast-feeding while lying in bed", a coroner's inquest was told. Staff at Auckland Birthcare found the baby mottled and lifeless and were unable to resuscitate her.

During the inquest the mother told the court she was unsure whether she had received any information about the risks associated with bed sharing.