In the late 80s around 2,000 babies died suddenly and unexpectedly each year and no reason for the cause of death ever found. These deaths were recorded as deaths from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) which at the time was more commonly referred to as cot death. Over the last 25 years, the rate of SIDS deaths has fallen by more than 80%, with the latest figures showing that in 2015 217 babies died from SIDS across the UK.
This huge reduction is largely due to the discovery by researchers in Netherlands and New Zealand that babies who slept on their stomachs had a much higher risk of SIDS . Here in the UK, Professor Peter Fleming of the University of Bristol carried out a national control study, which was funded by The Lullaby Trust. The research confirmed the same findings. Professor Fleming published his findings in 1990 but deaths had already begun to fall as early as 1989 as word spread about his emerging results and a subsequent successful trial removed any doubts.
In July, 1991, celebrity daytime TV host Anne Diamond sadly lost her baby boy Sebastian to SIDS. He was just over 4 months old and had been put down to sleep on his tummy by Anne. This terrible tragedy galvanised Anne and she travelled to New Zealand accompanied by a documentary team to find out more about cot death.
She met the New Zealand researchers who had identified that prone sleeping was the main risk factor for SIDS. She also found out that the New Zealand government had quickly sprung into action and had already launched a Back to Sleep campaign in that country. Anne came back to the UK and joined forces with The Lullaby Trust (then known as The Foundation for the Study of Infant Deaths) to lobby the government to launch a similar national awareness raising campaign.
The Lullaby Trust had begun to prepare its own information campaign, based on the evidence from Professor Fleming’s research. This campaign was due to be launched in October but the charity inevitably had limited resources to reach every household in the country. Like Anne, the charity knew that an extensive multi-media based campaign was vital and that the backing and resources of Government was essential. After many meetings with Ministers, officials and the medical profession, the Department of Health accepted the premise of the research and launched the Back to Sleep campaign in December 1991. The Department ran an extensive two week TV and magazine campaign fronted by Anne; issued a letter to all doctors and nursing officers .; and produced a leaflet for all new parents.
Over the next 5 years the rate of SIDS plummeted and we will always be grateful to Peter Fleming and colleagues for his life saving research and Anne Diamond for her vision and her determination to prevent the trauma of SIDS engulfing other families. The Lullaby Trust has continued to work hard to raise awareness of safer sleep and the number of babies dying has continued to decline reaching a record low in 2014. The ONS attributed this drop, in part, to increased awareness of safer sleep practices.
As the Back to Sleep Campaign reaches its 25 year anniversary we reflect with pride on what has been achieved since that time. However, we never forget those families whose lives have been shattered by the loss of a baby. We offer bereavement support to parents and family members for as long as and whenever they need it. Those parents, and those who we have the chance to spare the tragedy of SIDS are at the heart of all we do. We continue fighting to drive down the number of deaths, through funding research and raising awareness, and believe that the work we do will see many more lives saved over the next 25 years.