High Māori SUDI rates sparks call for wahakura

8:14 pm on 27 August 2015

The alarmingly high rates of sudden unexpected death in Māori infants is prompting calls for a nationwide roll out of wahakura or baby sleeping pods.

A baby in a wahukura (file photograph).

A baby in a wahakura (file photograph). Photo: Supplied

Between 2008 and 2012, 31 babies unexpectedly died in the Wellington region alone, of which 70 percent were Māori.

More than 100 people gathered at Kōkiri Marae in Petone today to address the problem.

High smoking rates among pregnant Māori women and the popularity of sleeping with their babies creates a risk factor for Sudden Unexpected Death in Infancy.

Lower Hutt mother of six Davinia Tuhura said the support and awareness raised at Kōkiri Marae has helped her become a better mum.

"I've been involved because I'm one of those parents that was struggling to break the cycle, and you know I'm so glad my babies are alive," she said.

"But I know now what's good for my children and I feel good about it. And I'm continuously supported by the whanau here and it's now inspired me to help and tautoko others so they can get to that point and their whanau can be happy and healthy as well."

Doctor and SUDI prevention specialist David Tipene-Leach said smoking while pregnant damaged the baby's respiratory system, and when those babies sleep with their parents the risk of overheating and suffocation is higher than for healthy babies.

He said a very Māori approach had been developed to combat that.

"We've invented, or reclaimed, a sleeping space called a wahakura which creates a safe space inside a bed for a baby to sleep," Dr Tipene-Leach said.

He said in the past three years, 11,000 plastic baby sleeping pods and 1,500 woven wahakura have been rolled out - with great results.

"We've seen a 30 percent drop in infant mortality across New Zealand. Interestingly, it's only the Maori mortality rate that's decreasing.

"We didn't invent a new vaccine, we didn't change poverty, we didn't do anything else, the only thing in this country that we've got new is a safe sleeping programme?"

About half of Māori women smoke and Dr Tipene-Leach said reducing that would be a long term effort.

General manager of health and social services at Kōkiri Marae Teresea Olsen said it was not easy for some pregnant wāhine living in violent or poor environments.

She said it was important not to blame and shame those who smoked.

"If you're always on at them for smoking they're not going to come around," she said.

"You've got to build a supportive network around them and try and address all the other issues that impact on why they smoke."

National manager for the Māori SUDI prevention group Whakawhetū Kathrine Clarke said every new mother should be offered a free safe sleeping space for their baby.

"You could do the simple back of the envelope maths in terms of what does it cost to produce 100, 200 or 10,000, or you could say what is the cost of actually losing that baby in terms of what it costs for the sector with coroners, pathologists and all the other services that are wrapped around that whanau after the baby has passed."

Ms Clarke believed the introduction of the Wahakura and safe sleeping programme had been key in reducing the SUDI rates for Māori.

But there is still a long way to go, with Māori making up more than two thirds of all SUDI deaths nationwide.

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