Wednesday, October 29, 2003

Turning the heat on parents

'Overheating puts babies at risk', says BBC News, reporting a new survey by the Foundation for the Study of Infant Death (FSID). The survey suggests that 56 per cent of parents do not know the proper room temperature for their baby and only a third of families have a thermometer in the room where their baby sleeps. According to FSID director Joyce Epstein: 'Babies who get too hot are at an increased risk of cot death. Our message to parents is: look at and touch your baby to see if they are too warm, and keep an eye on the room temperature.'

baby sleeping

'Cot death' is defined by FSID as 'sudden and unexpected death of a baby for no obvious reason' and amounts to about one death in every 2000 live births, according to figures on the FSID website. Without knowing why an infant has died, it is impossible to know to what degree any particular factor, like temperature, was responsible. The most that can be said is that there seem to be slightly fewer deaths in relatively cool homes than in warmer homes. But correlation does not mean causation; and the results of the studies that have been done may turn out to be meaningless because they cover such a small number of cases.

However, parents reading about studies like this would not get the impression that the advice given is based on such limited results. Instead, the report implies that a particular temperature range is always best and variation beyond that range is always dangerous. The fact is that 1,999 children out of every 2000 do not suffer cot death despite the stated ignorance of parents as to the 'correct' temperature for baby's room. This tends to suggest that fine-tuning the thermostat will make very little difference to whether an infant dies or not.

In 1900, infant mortality was 138 deaths per 1000 live births, falling to 36 in 1950 and 5.3 in 2002. The volume of advice that parents receive about their children seems to be rising at a time when infant death has become extremely rare. FSID, for example, makes recommendations on sleeping position, smoking, temperature, and sleeping with parents (in the same room is good, but not in the same bed) - all to avoid cot death, and all on the same feeble scientific basis. The effect of such advice is negligible as regards children's health, but it is does increase the anxiety of parents and can lead to overwhelming but misplaced guilt for those who tragically suffer the loss of a child.

Over-heating puts babies at risk, BBC News, 27 October 2003

Foundation for the Study of Infant Death

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