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Baby Fern died at just seven weeks old – her mother has urged parents to be fully aware of the safety advice
By Rebecca Curran
BBC Scotland reporter

Parents are being urged to heed advice on co-sleeping with babies after new infant death figures were released.

BBC News has learned that more than a quarter of infant deaths investigated in Scotland last year involved co-sleeping.

The NHS no longer tells parents never to bedshare with their babies but focuses advice on doing so more safely.

The solicitor general said the figures suggested some babies were dying in “high-risk” co-sleeping situations.

The Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) has for the first time tracked the number of babies who died while co-sleeping with parents, following concerns identified as a result of its investigations.

During 2023 it received reports of 74 deaths of babies under the age of 18 months.

Of those, it identified 19 babies who died while co-sleeping. In a number of cases the parent or carer had consumed alcohol or drugs.

NHS Scotland no longer urges parents never to bedshare with babies, accepting that some parents will do so, but it offers advice on making it safer.

It says babies should be placed on their backs, in smoke free-spaces, on firm mattresses with pillows and bedding cleared out of the way to prevent suffocation or overheating.

Parents are still told they should not share a bed with their baby if they smoke, have taken alcohol, drugs or medicines that cause drowsiness or if the infant is underweight. They are also told never to co-sleep in armchairs or on sofas.

One mother whose baby died after they both fell asleep has shared her story with BBC News in the hope of raising awareness.

Dawn Fernand said she would “grieve forever”

Dawn Fernand, 33, from Forfar, lost her daughter Fern in November 2014 when she was seven weeks old.

Fern had slept in a moses basket during the night but they fell asleep together after an early morning feed.

“Then when I woke up, I realised that she wasn’t breathing,” she said.

“So at that point, absolute panic set in, an ambulance was called and her dad started CPR straight away but of course it was too late.”

Dawn described it as “the biggest rollercoaster I have and will ever go through in my life”.

“You are in shock. You are numb. I remember my entire chest, it literally feels like you are getting torn apart.

“I lost part of me, and you physically feel the pain of losing that part of you. I will grieve forever. “

Dawn hopes that by speaking of her loss of Fern, other parents will become more aware of the risks.

There were no alcohol or drugs involved in Fern’s death. Tests later revealed she had stopped breathing several times during her life, so co-sleeping may not have been to blame.

But Dawn said she still wanted to warn parents about the risks, to prevent another family going through what she had.

She said: “With the guidelines recently changing, I don’t think it is clear enough anymore that bedsharing is a risk. Whether you don’t take alcohol or don’t take drugs, it is still a risk to bedshare.

“I know how hard it is to raise babies. I know it’s exhausting and I know sometimes all you can do is co-sleep.

“But please be aware that there is a risk while doing it. There are ways to make it as safe as possible, but there is still a risk. So I would always advise parents to put their baby asleep on their back, alone in their cot.”

Solicitor general, Ruth Charteris KC, said she offered her condolences to anyone who had suffered what was “without doubt one of the most devastating tragedies that a family could experience”.

Preventable deaths

She said that overall, safer sleep advice had worked to save the lives of thousands of babies but she was concerned by the findings which showed unsafe co-sleeping was still happening.

“I can understand the challenges of getting enough sleep as a family, but expert advice should be followed,” she said.

“The evidence of the cases reported to the procurator fiscal shows that, tragically, babies can and do die in high-risk co-sleeping situations.”

She added: “It is my sincere hope that by drawing attention to our concerns, prompted by the outcome of our investigations, that the number of baby deaths in which co-sleeping was a preventable factor, can be even further reduced through open conversations about safer sleeping.”

Lynsey Kidd, executive director at the Scottish Cot Death Trust, said she was concerned by the figures.

She said: “The evidence tells us that for the first six months the safest place for baby to sleep is in a flat, clear, separate space such as a cot, a moses basket or a crib, in the parents’ room.

“We are concerned as a charity because we support many of these families, and whilst we talk about figures, we see the absolute devastation for families across Scotland who are living with the loss of their baby.”

The Scottish government said it did not yet know the causes of deaths for the babies that COPFS had been notified of.

A spokesperson added: “We are very grateful to the many charities that provide vital support and information to families at this very difficult time of their lives. We know that charities will be available to support families who require this as a result of the solicitor general’s statement.”

If you’re affected by the issues in this report, you can find support from BBC Action Line or information from the Scottish Cot Death Trust.

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