On average, 13 infants die suddenly and unexpectedly each year in South Australia. Most of these deaths occur in the infants’ sleep environments, and in almost all cases at least one safe sleeping risk factor is identified. As we discussed in a previous blog post, these risk factors are not necessarily causes of death in their own right, but rather behaviours that increase the risk of infants dying after being placed to sleep. These risks can be eliminated with education about, and adoption of, safe sleeping practices.

Through prevention campaigns by organisations like Red Nose, Kidsafe, and SA Health, the number of infant deaths involving safe sleeping risks has declined over the past fifteen years (Figure 1 – use the interactive app below to view figures). However, unsafe infant sleep practices – including unsafe bedding and bed-sharing – are still common and continue to contribute to the deaths of infants.

The most common risk factor identified in infant deaths – unsafe bedding – refers to any loose items present in the infant’s sleep environment. When placing a baby to sleep, it is important to ensure there are no choking hazards in the cot – these include any toys, pillows, and loose blankets. Between 2005 and 2020, unsafe bedding was present in about three quarters of all sleep-related infant deaths in South Australia (see Figure 2).

Over half of all sleep-related infant deaths occur in the State’s most socio-economically disadvantaged areas. Infants in these areas are four times as likely to die suddenly and unexpectedly than infants who live in the least disadvantaged areas (see Figure 3). Many of these areas are located in the Northern Adelaide region (Figure 4).

The decline in infant deaths over the years proves that prevention messaging and education work – but there is an ongoing need for targeted efforts to stop preventable sleep-related infant deaths, especially in South Australia’s most disadvantaged areas.

If you have not done so already, please read about the safe sleeping guidelines to help ensure that every baby sleeps safely.