Battle against avoidable deaths often jars with traditional values and methods

A coroner has repeated calls for public awareness about the risks of mothers sleeping with their babies after yet another avoidable death of a newborn.

The baby, a 3-month-old Auckland boy, died last August after sleeping on a pullout couch with his mother and 3-year-old sister.

The baby woke about 2.30am and was fed by his mother before being put back down to sleep on a pillow to her left. He was wearing a one-piece pyjama suit and wrapped loosely in two baby blankets.

At 6am his mother woke to find her daughter, who had been sleeping on the other side of the pullout couch, needing to go to the toilet.

When she returned the baby was in the same position but his head was turned away from her so she pulled him close and held him by her side.

"It was really dark and I turned on the TV to see what time it was ... I then turned to look at [him] and saw his lips were blue," the mother said in a statement prepared for an inquest.

"I immediately knew something was wrong and grabbed him and ran around the house to wake my husband and my sister-in-law and her husband up."

An ambulance was called and CPR was started on the baby but nothing could be done to save him.

An autopsy found he died from asphyxia of an undetermined cause.

Coroner Gordon Matenga ruled that it was probably accidental suffocation. There was no suggestion it was the result of any intentional act by any of the 18 other people staying in the home.

The coroner said the baby was "well cared for and a loved member of a loving family". His mother, who is Tongan, said she had slept with all of her children until they were about 4 years old and it was very common in her culture.

In his judgment Mr Matenga said the advice on co-sleeping and bed-sharing was strongly debated, with some arguing the risk of death was low and the practice encouraged bonding and assisted with breastfeeding.

Mr Matenga said the issue was examined by another coroner last year following a series of similar inquests.

As a result, that coroner recommended strengthening messages concerning the increased risks of death for babies who co-sleep with parents.

Mr Matenga said the Ministry of Health advises against co-sleeping when the mother has smoked during pregnancy, has been drinking or taking drugs or medicines that might reduce their awareness or is excessively tired.

It further advises babies should be in a safe space when parents go to sleep, preferably a cot or bassinet until they are at least 6 months old.

Mr Matenga said resources were available to parents, including a website in 20 different languages, on safe sleeping habits.

"The information is certainly available, but it can be difficult fighting against traditional values and methods," he said. "The battle must, however, continue to be fought. Deaths such as this one are avoidable."