The new education toolkit called "Honouring Our Babies: Safe Sleep Cards and Guide" includes discussion cards and a guidebook aimed at reducing the risk of SIDS and sudden unexplained death in infancy among First Nations communities.
SIDS is the sudden, unexpected death of a baby under one year old, and typically occurs when the infant is sleeping.
Perinatal Services BC, an agency with the Provincial Health Services Authority, said the cause of SIDS is unknown. However, certain aspects, including genetic, metabolic and environmental factors, may help explain the higher rate of sudden infant deaths experienced in First Nation communities.
"Some of the reasons (behind the higher rate) are not necessarily the cause of SIDS, but increase the risks," said Perinatal Services BC President Kim Williams in a phone interview. "So things like increased smoking, increased poverty, increased teenage pregnancies and some lower education levels in the aboriginal populations can contribute to the risk of sudden infant deaths."
A 2009 BC Coroners Service report that looked at 113 sudden infant deaths occurring in the province from January 2003 to December 2007 showed that thirty per cent of the deaths involved aboriginal infants, and that a majority of them died in Vancouver Island and the northern regions of the province.
According to the report, aboriginal infants comprise about eight per cent of B.C.’s under-one population.
The Public Health Agency of Canada says in 2004, SIDS accounted for five per cent of all infant deaths, and babies who are male, premature, or of low birth weight, as well as infants from socio-economically disadvantaged and Aboriginal populations, have a higher incidence of the syndrome.
"It's upsetting any time a baby dies, but when we see these numbers in aboriginal communities being high, we want to do everything we can to work with the community to bring the numbers down," said Williams.
The new toolkit is developed by a working group involving the federal and provincial governments and the First Nations Health Authority, with input from First Nations. It include guidelines about safe sleep practices that health officials say incorporate cultural beliefs, practices and issues specific to aboriginal communities.
Michelle Degroot, with the First Nations Health Authority, said certain caregiving practices in aboriginal communities, such as swaddling a baby or having them sleep with their parents, could harm them if administered improperly.
"So we're just ensuring that the parents know there are some risks if the babies are sleeping with them," she said. "And also understanding the circumstances that when some young families live with their parents or other family members, overcrowding can be an issue ... so having a separate sleeping space for the children may be difficult and the parents may sleep with the child."
Williams said the toolkit also honours the aboriginal custom that all babies are gifts, and that it is the responsibility of the whole family — and not just the parents — to care for a baby.
The toolkit can be found online at www.fnha.ca.
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