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A recent study, published in the Lancet medical journal, potentially goes a step closer to understanding what causes cot deaths with the research finding that many babies who died suddenly were carrying potentially harmful bacteria. 

Cot death is often used to describe a sudden and unexpected infant death that is initially unexplained – ‘sudden unexpected death in infancy’ (SUDI). Cot deaths that remain unexplained after a thorough post mortem are usually registered as sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). 

Researchers looking into the recent connection made with bacteria, caution that: “The link is merely an association. They cannot be sure that infections found during autopsy were what caused the deaths,” reports The Guardian. 

The team from Great Ormond Street Hospital and the Institute of Child Health undertook a review of post mortem records of 500 babies at Great Ormond Street Hospital who had died unexpectedly between 1996 and 2005. 

“This research does reinforce the need for parents to follow existing advice on minimising the risk of cot death” 

The Foundation for the Study of Infant Deaths explained how the research was carried out: the researchers categorised the cases as either unexplained; explained with evidence of bacterial infection likely to cause death; or explained by non-infective causes such as heart defects. 

“The bacteria in the unexplained cases were in almost the same concentrations as in cases where the cause of death was determined as infection”, reported Rebecca Smith in The Telegraph. The bugs included Staphylococcus aureus and Escherichia coli which can cause serious damage without showing any outward signs. 

Professor Nigel Klein, one of the research authors, believes that there could be three potential explanations for the result: coincidence, a role for bacteria causing the death, and the presence of bacteria due to an unrelated factor which increased the risk of cot death such as children’s exposure to smoking: “So this research does reinforce the need for parents to follow existing advice on minimising the risk of cot death.” 

The NHS also advises that the findings should not alter current recommendations i.e. to avoid smoking around the baby, to put the baby to sleep on its back, and to keep the baby at a comfortable temperature with its head uncovered. 

The rate of cot deaths has fallen by almost 75% since the Reduce the Risk Campaign highlighting recommendations to minimise the risk was launched in 1991. In 2005, there were 300 unexplained infant deaths in the UK. 

Useful links: 

Foundation for the Study of Infant Deaths and helpline 020 7233 209 Child Bereavement Charity