‘The facts behind the print’ Sudden Infant Death Syndrome: Professor Helen Ball

Professor Helen Ball
As usual, the media recently succeeded in increasing the fear of new parents, in relation to infant sleeping and bed sharing with baby. Oh my word. Those of us working or who have worked in field sigh with frustration, but the flurry of panic amongst those with babes in arms is almost palpable. In addition, the Department of Health has instructed the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) to undertake an extraordinary review of the section of the postnatal care guideline (CG 37) on reducing the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). As I was on the original postnatal care guideline development group, my opinion is being sought.
Thank goodness we have sensible experts in the field, who are able to shed light on the real facts behind the print. You are about to meet one!
I have been fortunate enough to hear Professor Helen Ball speak about the topic of safe bed sharing and SIDS on a few occasions at conferences, and I am delighted that she agreed to be interviewed for my blog.
Hi Helen, thanks for agreeing to chat to me here! Could you introduce yourself?
Hi Sheena, I am Professor of Anthropology at Durham University and Director of the Parent-Infant Sleep Lab. This is my 20th year at Durham!
When did you first become interested in infant sleep patterns? 
I started reading academic research about infant sleep in 1992 while I was pregnant with my first child. I didn’t start thinking about researching infant sleep myself then, however. At the time I had recently finished my PhD in primatology and was living in the US and lecturing part-time. A few years later, after I had been appointed as a lecturer at Durham, and I was pregnant with my 2nd child, I decided I wanted to switch to a research field that didn’t require overseas fieldwork, and could be done closer to home — and the idea to study infant sleep was born!
What does your average working day consist of?
It begins with an hour’s commute from my home in Northumberland to the Anthropology Dept in Durham, or slightly longer to the  University’s Queen’s Campus in Stockton, which is where the Sleep Lab is located. Depending on whether it is a ‘Durham day’ or a ‘Stockton day’ I might be teaching undergrads or postgrads, supervising research students, participating in Dept management meetings, or meeting with my lab manager Charlotte about research projects, grant applications, papers we might be writing, or updates to the ISIS (Infant Sleep Info Source) website. 
What do you think of the latest media response to the release of evidence in relation to SIDS?
The recent Carpenter paper is simply one more piece of information that adds to an ongoing academic debate between researchers who are attempting to clarify the factors involved in unexpected and unexplained infant deaths. Unfortunately as it is an emotive topic the media is quick to publicise any new piece of information about SIDS research while other topics that are not newsworthy continue their academic arguments in private. The stories don’t help parents or health care staff attempting to advise them though, as the media stories tend to generate more heat than light around the topic and cause confusion. When sufficient evidence has been amassed that indicate one of the recommendations should be changed around SIDS, then the experts are consulted for their views and all the evidence is considered. In this case the media fuss was about an issue that actually has very little impact on actual SIDS rates (bedsharing by breastfeeders, which is an already very low risk group) and diverted attention from the really risky issues such as smoking, bedsharing in hazardous sleep environments such as sofas, and the effects of alcohol and drug impairment on parental ability to ensure safe infant sleep environments. We have issued a response to the paper itself on the ISIS website.
As a midwife, I find some of the information for parents on infant sleep and SIDS confusing, and frequently scary. What are your thoughts?
It is very difficult to understand how you might keep babies safe from something that appears to cause them to die with no apparent explanation. The prospect of your baby dying unexpectedly in their sleep is a very scary — but there is a lot of research evidence now to help us pinpoint what might increase the risk of this happening, and how it might be avoided. The biggest success has been with sleep position — when parents were advised to sleep their babies on their back, the SIDS rates plummeted. People are now hoping for another simple piece of advice to be equally effective, but it doesn’t seem as though there are any other ‘magic bullets’. The remaining risks are far more complex and difficult to change (such as smoking). Some fears around the risks associated with bedsharing have caused authorities in different locations to promote scary campaigns aimed at frightening parents away from bed-sharing. These have been heavily criticised for being insensitive to bereaved parents, for fear-mongering, and for creating a climate in which parents lie to their health care providers about bedsharing, and health care staff avoid discussing bedsharing safety and contraindications with parents. These campaigns have also proved ineffective in reducing SIDS. I would suggest we now need more tailored education for parents that can allow them to consider the risks that may affect their baby and make relevant care decisions.
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The media obviously has great influence on behaviours. How best do you think we can steer the information to support parents?

One of the reasons we created the ISIS  website was to ensure there was a reliable source of research info on infant sleep that parents and health professionals could refer to, and where they could find information explaining the controversies and things they should consider in weighing up the evidence. It would be much less confusing for parents if the media hype around parenting stories did not try to polarise issues around infant care such as infant feeding and sleep behaviour. There is far more agreement among the ‘experts’ in this field than disagreement, but one wouldn’t know this from reading some of the media stories!

What are your plans for the future Helen?
In less than a month I will become the first woman to be the Head of Anthropology at Durham!
And lastly….what motivates to continue to champion the cause?
I believe strongly that parents should be provided with information they can use to make their own decisions about infant care. So many parents and health professionals contact me to ask questions and seek clarification that I am very aware there is an unmet need for information and education on infant sleep. Many of their questions address issues we don’t presently have research to base answers on. I have always felt that as an academic it was important to conduct research that was useful to others, addressed questions that were relevant to non-academics, and would be used by the real world. With our infant sleep research we are achieving this, which makes it worthwhile!

 Thank you so much Helen for taking time out of your busy and important schedule to feature here. AND CONGRATULATIONS ON YOUR NEW POST and massive achievement! Wonderful and much deserved success. I wish you lots of luck and send best wishes for the future, and enormous grattitude for the advice and support you give to us all, as health professionals and parents. 


You can find Helen on Twitter @IsisOnline1

By sheenabyrom

6 comments on “‘The facts behind the print’ Sudden Infant Death Syndrome: Professor Helen Ball

  1. As ever, Helen Ball articulated the dilemmas and fears faced by parents and the issue of safe sleeping very well. I would like to suggest that possibly there is a ‘magic bullet’ that is available to parents.
    And that is the Bednest, a bedside crib purposily designed to provide parents and babies with all the benefits of co- sleeping but none of the risk because the baby is in its own sleep space. Lasting for 6 months, with see through sides, which fold down to make a seemless bridge between Bednest and the parents bed mean mum and baby are still close to encourage breastfeeding responses, attachment and bonding but without the fears associated of having a baby in the same bed together.

  2. Thank you so much for this. My friend’s 9 month old passes away in feb due to SIDS and the recent news about bed sharing really upset us all. Id really like to read more about this lady’s work. Thank you for sharing.

  3. Hi Helen,
    Good to read your balanced, calm approach in response to media hype often stressing an unbalanced stance. I wondered why your research, and indeed much research on baby/child issues is so based on US &/or UK sources..Why do you not look at patterns in India, Malaysia and other eastern countries where bed sharing with babes/children under 5 is thought to be normal and natural and therefore widely practised?

    • To Susanna Davies. I think the answer might be that studies undertaken in countries with very different environments and cultures would not be seen to be applicable in this type of country and culture. There would be too many variables to have to take into account. Helen’s work here and McKenna’s work in the US have been invaluable in countering the scaremongering.

  4. Pingback: The Facts Behind The Print, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome by Professor Helen Ball - Birth Balance

  5. Pingback: ‘Keep fear out of the birth room’: an interview with Professor Hannah Dahlen | SHEENA BYROM

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