Three loved babies die in bed

They are tragedies that could have happened to any family.

The deaths of three much-loved and well-cared-for Wellington babies have been made public by a coroner to illustrate how vulnerable infants are.

All three suffocated in their sleep. Te Atirau Matehaere Hamiora Gerrard, 6 months, died while sleeping on his stomach, alone in his mother's bed.

Ronon John Dittmer-Lokes died while sleeping on a bassinet mattress in a stroller. The 3-month-old suffocated after rolling on to his stomach.

Tusitala-John Savaii-Taatiti, 9 months, died after his father fell asleep on a couch while holding him. The father woke to find his baby wedged in the back of the couch.

Attempts by the parents and paramedics to bring the baby boys back to life were futile.

Coroner Ian Smith recommended Well Child providers such as Plunket and Tamariki Ora engage with expectant mothers from about week 36 of their pregnancies to ensure they and their families are educated on safe sleeping practices.

In his decision on baby Te Atirau's death in 2009, Mr Smith said: "It is not in dispute that this baby was very much loved and had a caring mother who had done the utmost for her children."

Te Atirau's mother had attempted to stop him sleeping on his stomach after advice from health carers, but reverted to placing him on his stomach because he would not settle on his back.

Plunket clinical adviser Allison Jamieson said that visiting mothers earlier could be useful. "Anything that gives families, whanau more information and can make their choices safer around the care of their children is a good thing."

Between 40 and 50 babies under the age of 1 die each year in New Zealand from sudden unexpected death in infancy (Sudi), including cot death and suffocation.

Health professionals' understanding of Sudi and education for parents about the risks had contributed to fewer deaths in recent years, Ms Jamieson said.

"It has to happen every sleep, every time, not just at night."

Health Ministry child and youth health chief adviser Pat Tuohy said pre-birth visits, as recommended by the coroner, were possible under existing arrangements for families or parents regarded by midwives as having high health needs. For all other mothers and families, midwives and doctors "routinely discuss safe sleeping arrangements".

Hospitals also provided information to parents both verbally and in the form of safe sleeping cot cards after the birth, Dr Tuohy said. "The ministry is aware that, in one of these tragic cases, the local district health board paediatrician and outreach nurses were also involved in supporting the family with their new baby."

Some district health boards, including Hawke's Bay, provided "wraparound care" for vulnerable women and babies for the first year of the children's life, Dr Tuohy said.



The six-month-old Lower Hutt boy died in March 2009. He was taken to hospital after he stopped breathing at seven weeks old. His mother was given a breathing monitor and told to put him on his back.

Before his death he appeared normal apart from a slight bleeding nose. Te Atirau died while sleeping on his mother's bed, alone. Coroner Ian Smith said he died of sudden unexpected death in infancy.


Ronon was put to sleep on a soft bassinet mattress in a stroller at a family member's house in Petone. He was placed with his back rested slightly against one side of the stroller to prevent him rolling over. An hour before his death in September 2010 he was asleep on his back.

He was on his stomach when his mother went to feed him. He was floppy and not breathing. Coroner Garry Evans said Ronon died from accidental asphyxia.


Tusitala-John died at his Wainuiomata home in October 2011. The nine-month-old was teething and had woken in the night crying. His father took him to the lounge and tucked him next to him on the couch before falling asleep.

When his father was woken several hours later, Tusitala-John was wedged between the back of the couch and the cushion. His face wasn't covered and his lips were blue. Mr Evans said he died from accidental asphyxia.


Avoid smoking during pregnancy, and in the home.

Put babies on their backs to sleep.

Breast feed.

Keep a sleeping baby's face and head free from hazards that can lead to suffocation.

Have the baby sleep in your room for the first 6 months.

Have your baby sleep in its own bed, especially if premature, or the family smoke.

Source: Plunket

Contact Bronwyn Torrie
Health reporter
Twitter: @brontorrie

The Dominion Post