If they should die before they wake

Last updated 05:00 14/09/2013

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OPINION: You could put it down to the peptic overstatement of an exasperated man.

Or to all those dead babies. Between 55 and 60 of them each year, dead by morning in their parents' beds.

Either way, Coroner Wallace Bain's call for a law change to make parents who sleep with babies open to child abuse prosecutions is likely to be met by that familiar and emphatic message that, no, the real solution here is better education.

Trouble is, the case in front of Dr Bain was one where the parents had received education. None too daintily either, from the sound of it.

The message was that in light of their history of smoking and cannabis use, the risk was they might smother their baby. The midwife believed they had accepted the message. It turns out that any agreements she received were empty ones.

Let's be clear that prosecutions after the event would achieve nothing other than punishment. They are highly unlikely to act as much of a deterrent.

What would the message then become? If your baby dies from this you'll be in trouble? It would be a horror of a human being who would need to get to the end of that sentence to find motivation.

No, in cases like this, "education" means actually convincing, which is a far more difficult task than merely presenting the agreed information with an instructive tone.

It's interesting that Chief Coroner Judge Neil MacLean has acknowledged some midwives and breast-feeding advocates see coroners going on about the dangers of co-sleeping as the insensitive scoldings of elderly while males; and what would they know about it?

For his part Judge MacLean also acknowledged - and this before Dr Bain's latest finding - that: "It's arguable that some coroners have laid it on a bit thick by talking about mothers killing babies . . . which is counter-productive."

At least we should bear in mind that for parents who are unpersuaded by bottom-line message that their babies can be brought into bed for comforting or feeding, but should sleep in a cot, next to the bed, there is a potential Plan B.

It comprises pepi-pods or wahakura. The pods are portable beds, designed to provide a safe sleeping space for babies at high risk of accidental suffocation; not just an adult's bed, but perhaps a couch or makeshift situation. Post-quake Canterbury needed plenty of them.

Wahakura essentially perform the same role. They are woven flax baskets, properly dried and fitted with special mattresses and merino wool lining.

And before the rest of us take too censorious a line with parents who bring children into their beds, we should bear in mind some of the living conditions out there. Consider the death of a 4-month-old baby girl in Ruatoki, who was taken into the bed for warmth. She died in a small weatherboard house, not waterproof, with several broken and boarded-over windows.

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It was cold and draughty, particularly the uncarpeted and freezing bedroom, so the family was in the lounge. The couch was given up to a three-year-old child and the baby, wrapped in a blanket, was with the mother and father on a foam mattress on the lounge floor.

That was in 2011. The inquest into her death, incidentally, was held by Dr Bain. And by then he was already using words like "yet another tragic death . . ."

So give him this, he hasn't exactly stampeded to his call for prosecutions.

- The Southland Times

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