Sudden unexpected infant deaths rise for second year; at least half Māori pēpi

By Marena Mane

For the second year in a row, the number of babies dying of SUDI (sudden unexpected death in infancy) has increased, with Māori pēpi accounting for at least half of these deaths, according to Hāpai Te Hauora National SUDI Prevention Coordination Service.

In 2017, a new SUDI strategy was established emphasising the importance of babies having their own sleeping places, breastfeeding, immunisations and smoke-free homes and cars. 

However, the number of deaths has climbed since then and they are now 30% higher than in 2017.

Fay Selby-Law (Ngāti Porou, Ngāti Raukawa), general manager of Hāpai Te Hauora National SUDI Prevention Coordination Service, says Māori currently have the highest rates of poverty, poor employment with lower wages, housing issues, health literacy, and health access issues which all have an impact on SUDI. She says there are many families sharing or living in the same house, with some even sleeping in garages.

“Historically, we’ve come from a people who lost our ability to be self-determined. And so, if you think about that, many of our whānau start from a place that is below what others already have.”

Selby-Law says that although the message of safe sleeping for babies is correct, it is not resonating with the population that we need the message to reach, due to the fact that some whānau are inaccessible and most of the time are right in front of us.

Hāpai Te Hauora wants to allow whānau to self-assess and identify what changes they can make for themselves.

“You've got whakapapa, you’re connected to Papatūānuku, you're a descendant of Atua, therefore, let's take those strengths in what might change. What would be the first that we would like to change and how might we walk beside you?” she says. 

According to Selby-Law, smoking is one of the greatest hazards in terms of SUDI, and if the government could address smoking issues, particularly for Māori women during pregnancy, statistics such as cancer, respiratory illness, heart disease, and oral health could change our long-term wellness.

“So, it's one of those things that needs to be constantly looked at, and reviewed and offered to whānau in a way that sees them empowered, strengthened, and offered a remedy that works for them.”

She says newborns who die from SUDI may have been sick in the weeks prior and that most of the time it is due to immunisations or because they have not been seen by a health practitioner, doctor, or nurse.

“Putting your baby to bed at regular times and having a routine...There's also a view around tucking baby baby knows, 'oh, this is my sleeping time'.” 

Providing safe sleeping positions during Covid?

Selby-Law says safe sleeping positions for our babies begin with spaces that are apart from others in an infant safe sleep bed, such as:

  • Wahakura (A woven bassinet-like structure).
  • Pēpi Pod (A plastic version of a wahakura made from polypropylene).
  • Moses Basket
  • Bassinet

A baby's airway must be kept open by resting flat on their back on a level surface mattress with no pillows, toys, or objects in their space, she says.

According to Selby-Law, nursing is the best rongoā for our newborns, but this can be difficult for parents who may need to return to work or for whom formula is more convenient.