Born in Bradford is the biggest ever study of children’s health, charting thousands of young lives in the district from birth onwards. Its latest findings could help in the war against Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, writes health reporter CLAIRE LOMAX

New research has found that the way South Asian women care for their babies could hold the key to why a section of Bradford’s community is at lower risk of experiencing Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), often called cot death.

Born in Bradford staff interviewed more than 3,000 women across the city about their sleeping arrangements between 2008 and 2009 in a bid to understand if ethnic differences in infant care could explain why fewer South Asian babies compared to white British children were susceptible to SIDS.

The results from 2,180 families were analysed, of which 55.8 per cent were South Asian, for the paper, which was published yesterday in the American Paediatric Association’s prestigious Pediatrics journal.

Principal investigator and Bradford Teaching Hospitals’ paediatrician Dr Eduardo Moya said: “This is the first comprehensive study looking at two distinct ethnic groups in any UK city, and the results have proved very interesting.

“We know that in Bradford, families of South Asian origin have a low rate of SIDS (0.2/1,000 live births). Our research study set out to find out why this was.

“We found that Bradfordians of Pakistani origin follow Foundation Study of Infant Deaths’ guidelines closely in that they do not smoke or drink during or after pregnancy; they do not place their babies to sleep in separate rooms, and they have a high incidence of breast-feeding. However, we also found that it was much more common for Pakistani-origin mothers to share a bed with their baby.

“This finding was in comparison to some of the white British mothers who did drink, did smoke and were more likely to sofa-share with their infants.

“So we believe, given that Sudden Infant Death is rare in Bradford’s Pakistani community, this may indicate that infant and parent bed-sharing is safe when it is done under certain circumstances like those characteristics practiced among South Asian women described above.”

The Born in Bradford research into bed and sofa-sharing practices, funded by the foundation for the Study of Infant Deaths, is the largest study of Pakistani families in the UK. South Asians comprise the second-largest minority ethnic group in the country after Indian families.

The authors say that their findings support the view that bed-sharing and sofa-sharing are distinct practices and should not be combined in studies of unexpected infant death and in public health messages to this community.

Dr Moya said: “We believe that health policy-makers should exercise caution in generalising SIDS risk factors across communities with different infant care practices.

“We feel that public health messages on SIDS should be tailored to different communities within the UK – for example in places like Bradford which have a high South Asian population – where there is evidence that bed-sharing may be safe as long as it is done under certain conditions where the mother and child are in the bed on their own, and in the absence of drinking and smoking.

“Caution should therefore be taken in making sweeping recommendations regarding the avoidance of bed-sharing, which does not appear to carry the same risk for all families and may lead to unintended consequences, such as reduced breast-feeding, or adoption of more risky strategies, such as sofa-sharing.”

Current UK guidance is based on advice from the American Academy of Paediatrics, which advises that bed-sharing is not recommended under any circumstances.

There is already strong evidence of a link between co-sleeping and cot death where the parent smokes, drinks alcohol, or has taken drugs.

The authors acknowledge that co-sleeping is common practice. They also acknowledge it is a controversial risk factor in cot death, but add: “We believe that South Asian women should not be advised against co-sleeping, because they practice what we call ‘safe co-sleeping’ as they don’t drink, don’t smoke, breastfeed for more than eight weeks, and mother and child sleep in bed alone.

“This contrasts to our research findings which found that white British mothers were more likely to drink, smoke and sofa-share with their babies, they were also more likely to share a bed with their partners as well as the child and we would not consider this good practice.”

The authors hope that their paper will encourage debate as they feel it uncovers a clear trend in why south Asian infants have low incidences of SIDS.

Professor John Wright, director of the Bradford Institute for Research which is the research arm of Bradford Teaching Hospitals, said: “These results demonstrate how we can learn from different communities in our efforts to improve health, but also how important it is to tailor advice and health interventions so that they are culturally and ethnically appropriate.”