By Paul Dykes
Two of Ulster's top pathologists issued an urgent warning to parents today after their research revealed that some parents were dicing with death by sleeping with their babies.
According to the research, tragedy visits a family in Ulster every month, with parents waking up to find their baby has died with no apparent cause.
But in 70% of such cases of unexplained deaths, Professor Jack Crane, state pathologist, and Dr Peter Ingram, a forensic pathologist with the State Pathology Department, have determined that each baby had been sleeping with a parent, either in bed or on a chair.
Dr Ingram, who conducted the bulk of the research, warned that co-sleeping was the most significant common factor in all unexplained infant deaths in Ulster.
"If you take your child into your bed, you are taking a risk," he said.
"In the majority of unexplained infant deaths, the baby has been in bed or on a sofa with a parent.
"The 70% figure is a significant common factor. There is a risk that if you fall asleep you could roll over on the child."
Dr Ingram said the message had to get out.
"If you lie down to sleep with your baby, you are taking an unacceptable risk."
Professor Crane said there were about 100 unexplained infant deaths each year in Ulster in the 1970s and early 1980s, mainly involving babies less than 12 weeks old.
After a national campaign, this figure had dropped to about 10 or 12 a year, but pathologists were determined to reduce that further.
"Twelve deaths is still 12 tragedies for those families," he said. "We wanted to analyse the data, to see if there were any common factors, or links."
The resulting report is due to be published later this year.
He said other studies had shown that it was best for babies to sleep alone in their cots.
"Most parents are aware of the correct sleeping position, and the smoking risks, but not of co-sleeping," Dr Ingram said.
"We have released our research so parents will know there are various risk factors, so they can make choices for their child.
"We are trying to educate parents. We don't want to make any parents feel guilty in any way."
He said he knew that some midwives encouraged mothers to take their babies into their bed to breastfeed, but this was dangerous.
"If you take a baby into your bed to breastfeed, there is always a risk that if you're tired you could fall asleep."
Research had shown that it was dangerous to share a bed with a baby if either partner was a smoker, had been drinking alcohol, used drugs, was on medication that caused drowsiness, or was extremely tired, he said. Co-sleeping on chairs is also shown to be extremely dangerous.
The Royal College of Midwives offers similar advice, while advocating the benefits of co-sleeping.
Breedagh Hughes of the RCM Northern Ireland board said there were recorded instances of tired mothers lifting babies into bed from the cot during the night, with fatal consequences.
Co-sleeping was a very satisfying experience for some mothers, provided both the mother and baby were sensitive and responsive to one another, she said, but there were circumstances where it was not recommended at all.
"No one can say it is never safe to sleep with your baby. It is very much an issue for an individual mother," she said.