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New mothers are being encouraged to put their babies to sleep in a cardboard box in a new initiative to reduce the rate of sudden infant death.

The Whittington, in Archway, has become the third hospital in London to issue the Finnish-style boxes – with a promise that rich and poor mothers will all be entitled to receive them.

Parents are given a box after enrolling with the provider company’s online “university”, which uses short video clips to teach safe-sleeping techniques.
It comes after the first increase in almost a decade in the number of babies under one dying in England and Wales – 2,578 deaths in 2015.

Dr Gregory Battle, a medical director at the Whittington and an Islington GP, said: “I really like what they are doing. It was initially offered to people who were seen to have additional needs economically but they realised that didn’t work because of the stigma. Whether you come from Highgate or Holloway, you are going to be offered a box.”

The boxes, provided free by the US-based Baby Box Company, were launched at Queen Charlotte’s and Chelsea hospital in Acton last June. They are also available at North Middlesex hospital, Edmonton.

A borough-wide scheme is launching in Hackney and at South London and Maudsley NHS Trust, which treats patients with mental illness, later this year.

The baby box tradition has been credited with helping to reduce the infant mortality rate in Finland from 65 infant deaths per 1,000 births in 1938 to 2.26 per 1,000 births in 2015.

It is thought that educating parents about safe sleeping – and on risks such as smoking, drinking and co-sleeping – is as much to credit as ensuring babies are placed on their back, not on their stomach.

The Whittington handles about 3,800 births a year. About 40 per cent of pregnant women are new mothers, with many having no family or friends on hand to help.

Rose Hensman at Whittington hospital

The Whittington’s lead midwife Rose Hensman with a Baby Box

Lead midwife Rose Hensman said: “We were thinking about different ways to get information across to women. I thought that seemed a brilliant idea. I was sceptical at first, thinking that nobody gets anything for nothing, and wondering: what do we have to give?

“They said: give us your time – that was the key – and we will give you the baby boxes for free.”

The box contains a mattress and baby clothing such as a onesie, hat, mittens and socks, plus nappies and breast pads. It can be used until the child is about eight months old.

“We have seen this as an opportunity to advance the really good work we are doing already: giving the right information to mothers to try and reduce the risk of cot death, and making sure babies are healthier and happier,” Ms Hensman said.

“I have come across women who have used a bottom drawer [as a cot]. This [box] is far safer for babies to sleep in. Haringey has probably one of the highest areas of deprivation in the country.”

The infant death rate in England and Wales rose in 2015 – for the first time since 2006 – to 3.7 deaths per 1,000 live births.

Of the 2,578 deaths, about 230 are thought to be victims of sudden infant death syndrome, previously called cot death. The term has largely been abandoned due to its misleading suggestion that death only occurs when a baby is asleep in a cot.

Baby Box spokeswoman Sophie Luis said the boxes had never been “means tested” in the UK. She said: “We link the educational message with the safe-sleeping message. We are trying to give every baby the same start.”