The Chief Coroner says lives could be saved if safe sleeping pods are given to parents who co-sleep with their babies.

New Zealand has the worst rate in the industrialised world for sudden unexpected death in infancy (SUDI), with 50 babies dying a year and more than half being accidentally suffocated.

READ MORE: Funding for safe-sleep bassinets secretly shelved by Government

But, from as far back as 2008, coroners have been recommending the wahakura, a portable flax-woven bassinet, or its $100 plastic sister the pepi-pod, to stop parents smothering their babies while co-sleeping - an issue coroners call a "hidden epidemic".


At least 12 different coroners have recommended the devices in order to prevent more deaths - backed by health experts - but the Ministry of Health says there is not enough evidence to fund them.

Chief Coroner Deborah Marshall would not comment directly on the Ministry's policy, but said it was "frustrating" to investigate deaths that may be preventable.

"That's why we keep on making the recommendations with the hope the message will get through," Marshall said. "The evidence is quite clear of the dangers of co-sleeping without some protection for the baby." Babies are safest in a separate bassinet or cot, Marshall said, but if that was not possible, the pepi-pod or wahakura were the "next best option".

"SUDI is one of the more common preventable deaths, and probably together with suicide, it is the most frustrating for coroners to deal with because they are preventable deaths," Marshall said. "I think it would be great if pepi-pods were available to people who didn't have the resources to get them."

Her comments come after a Weekend Herald investigation which found the Ministry of Health tore up a $250,000 contract to fund the devices in 2012, without telling the relevant coroners or experts.

It also dished out $800,000 of funding to prevent SUDI last year on the condition that the money not be used to buy pepi-pods.

A spokesman said pepi-pods were not funded because the ministry does not believe there is enough scientific evidence to prove they save lives.

"While pepi-pods or wahakura may well have protected some babies, the evidence that they are the 'magic bullet' for SUDI prevention is at best circumstantial," said Dr Pat Tuohy, the Ministry of Health's chief adviser on child and youth health.

Experts, including internationally renowned cot death researcher Professor Ed Mitchell, are outraged and frustrated the ministry restricted the reach of pepi-pods, which they claim have been saving lives since 2006.

Mitchell, who co-authored the study linking pepi-pods to the drop in infant death rates, believes New Zealand could cut its SUDI rate down from 50 deaths a year to as few as five - by reducing smoking and rolling out the pepi-pod programme.

"Suffocation by definition is preventable and there is a solution, namely the wahakura or pepi-pod," he said.