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This time twenty years ago
This time twenty years ago, Britain’s most successful EVER health campaign got underway, just four months after the death of my own child.
And even though it meant everything to me, I couldn't stay in the UK over Christmas 1991 to watch the unfolding of a campaign I'd filmed, lobbied for and ached over for so many months. I took my family to Australia, half a world away from all the publicity, and started to learn to live life "after cot death".
Back then we in Britain lost 2,500 babies a year to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome - SIDS. And for some reason, now thought to be little more than a trend borne of a practice known to be beneficial for prem babies, most British mums slept their babies on their tummies. The popular belief among mums and midwives was that infants settled better that way. . Pictures of happy babes, snuggly sleeping in the prone position, covered baby merchandising from nappy packs to cot bumpers.
We didn't know we'd got it so wrong, but my family like many thousands, paid the price for that mistake with a life.
I was living in London with my husband and three sons, the youngest of whom, Sebastian, was four months old. That sunny July morning, it was my eldest son, Oliver’s fourth birthday. Just after I’d been in his bedroom to wake him up, I’d popped into the nursery, to check on the baby - and our lives changed forever. Still appearing like a warm, sleeping child, Sebastian was in fact, stone cold dead.
At the time, the four or five babies were dying every day. But why? In the end, my quest to find the answer, took me all the way to New Zealand, which had the highest cot death rate in the world. . The government had launched a massive epidemiological study, but half way through, the findings were so stunning, they turned it into a huge campaign.
They'd found that the babies who were dying were those sleeping on their tummies. Of course there had been theories that sleep position was a factor. (One now eminent doctor, Prof Peter Fleming in Bristol, was actually booed offstage at a medical conference for suggesting prone sleeping was key.) But this evidence was now unmistakeable.
Their campaign - to literally turn their babies over - started saving lives by the hundreds.
I knew we needed the same action.
Along with the leading cot death experts in the UK, I lobbied the chief medical officer, Dr Kenneth Calman, and the health minister, Virginia Bottomley, .
At first she wasn't convinced we needed a TV advert. She told me that, in her opinion, young mums didn't watch TV.
I couldn't believe it. Most of my mail came from young mums who watched breakfast TV whilst breastfeeding!
In the end, I got it - a multimedia campaign, which would involve telling a whole generation of nurses, doctors and midwives to overturn their advice. This was welcome to most, hugely controversial to some - and I know many midwives, baby clinic nurses and health visitors who were devastated to realise that the advice they'd believed and passed on for so long, was wrong.
It was called "Back To Sleep".
Years later, the Royal College of Paediatricians and Child Health awarded me their College Medal in recognition of the 15-20,000 lives saved.
Within six months, the cot death rate plummeted to around 300 annually, where it has stubbornly remained ever since. And, what's more, the official department of health report a year later found that 87% of women, who got the life-saving advice, got it from the Telly!
Now there's a new, insidious twist in the tale that we must all stop before it gains momentum. Some young mums are beginning to talk on internet chatrooms about a trick they've heard that might help them get a better nights sleep - sleep your baby on his tummy . The Foundation for the Study of Infant Deaths, which is forty years old this year (I'm their Anniversary Patron) reports they're worried young mothers don't understand the risks they're taking with their babies. Money may be short in the NHS at present - but what cost these precious lives? We need a new campaign and we need it now.