David Montgomery is all too familiar with what happens in the moments after a baby dies unexpectedly during their sleep.

"It's absolutely devastating. Just try for a moment to imagine what it must be like for parents to lose a baby unexpectedly in that way," he said.

Dr Montgomery is the clinical director of paediatrics at Whanganui Hospital.

He's one of Whanganui's many medical professionals desperately trying to reduce the rate of SUDI, or sudden unexpected death in infancy.


A recent report by the Child and Youth Mortality Review Committee found Whanganui had the highest rate of babies dying in their sleep alongside Gisborne and its surrounding area.

"The ramifications spread throughout their extended family," Montgomery continued.

"There's often siblings. There's usually grandparents of course and then cousins and aunties and uncles - and then the wider community.

"For health professionals it's also devastating. We come up against the raw emotion of the loss and the sadness. It affects us as well."

Of the seven babies who died from SUDI in Whanganui in the four years to 2016, six of them were Maori. The other was Polynesian.

Down the road from the hospital the city played host to the national Iwi Chairs' Forum.

Rahui Papa is one of the iwi leaders looking closely at social issues.

"We've been talking about this [SUDI] for a number of years.


"If you look at some of the research ... some of the poorest communities have the highest rates of infant mortality."

Papa said the focus had to be on improving the types of homes where babies had died of SUDI.

"Employment, education ... all of those things that bring safety and warmth to a family.

"When the state of the whanau is uplifted, that's the principle reason why Dame Tariana [Turia] and others came up with the idea of Whanau Ora. It's about the wraparound services in a whole number of areas ... so that the whanau don't have to go down these tracks of burying our pēpi (babies)."

Also in attendance at the forum was the Children's Commissioner, Judge Andrew Becroft.

Asked about the SUDI rate in his former home, Judge Becroft said it showed the city's struggles with poverty.

"We see it in educational underachievement, which, as the disadvantage and the relative poverty increases, educational achievements get worse.

"Same for mental health, same for abuse and neglect … and sadly the same in infant mortality. So there is a clear association between adverse life outcomes including infant mortality and disadvantage."

At the moment wahakura and pepi-pods are being touted as a key part of the strategy to bring down the SUDI rate.

A wahakura is a woven flax bassinet for infants up to 5-6 months of age, while a pepi-pod is the polypropene plastic equivalent.

The job of distributing wahakura and pepi-pods as well as the important safe sleeping advice that goes with it falls on Angela Weekly, from the Whanganui Regional Health Network.

"We have a very high rate of young pregnant women here," she said.

Just keeping track of them was a difficult job.

"They may have family up country that they'll go and stay with once they've had babies so to provide a portable bed that keeps baby safe wherever they are is really important."

The rate of SUDI deaths in Whanganui had slightly increased on the previous data given by the Child and Youth Mortality Review Committee.

Weekly admitted that was dispiriting but the work would continue.

"It's very hard to know what tools we give, how much effect they have. It is a whole array of safety, education and messaging that we give around smoke cessation, safe sleep, immunisation, gentle handling ... There's always room for improvement."

In the year starting July 1 last year an estimated 559 babies have been born in Whanganui. In that time 101 wahakura and 151 pepi-pods have been given out.

Angela Weekly said anyone who wants one of the sleeping devices need only get in touch with her organisation, ask their midwife or the DHB.

And they seem to be working - so far no baby has died in either a pepi-pod or a wahakura.