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Five-month-old baby died when his mother fell asleep with him on her bed

By Stephen Mathews 

The number of babies dying from unexplained causes has risen for the first time in three years, figures show.

There were 219 deaths caused by sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) or without a known cause in England and Wales in 2016.

This is the highest number since 2013, when there were 252, data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) showed in August.

The Lullaby Trust, a charity which raises awareness of SIDS, admitted it was ‘deeply concerned’ by the spike in deaths.

SIDS is the sudden, unexpected and unexplained death of an otherwise seemingly healthy baby.

The exact cause remains unknown but risk factors include unsafe sleeping, overheating and smoking while pregnant.

There has been a 23 per cent drop in unexplained deaths of infants across England and Wales over the last decade.

Greater awareness, mainly about how sleeping safely, is thought to be behind the trend.

But the latest increase – a 12 per cent jump in the space of a year – was driven by a rise in unascertained deaths among infant girls.

The figures include deaths among children less than one year old from SIDS and when no medical cause can be recorded.

Francine Bates, chief executive of The Lullaby Trust, said: ‘We are deeply concerned by the increased SIDS rate in England and Wales.

‘The previous downward trend in SIDS deaths has been largely attributed to increased awareness of safer sleep advice.

‘So it is essential that this remains a top priority for local authorities and all professionals working with families.’

Ms Bates added: ‘SIDS rates are highest in the most deprived areas.

‘We worry pressures on local authorities’ public health budgets and the increasing number of families being pushed into poverty will lead to slower progress or even further increases in the number of deaths.

‘We urge local authorities to ensure there is adequate funding for health visitors and early years staff who provide crucial safer sleep advice to families with new babies.’

Around half (51.6 per cent) of sudden infant deaths in 2016 were boys, down from 66.7 per cent the previous year.

Girls accounted for 48.4 per cent, up from 33.3 per cent in 2015.

The highest unexplained infant mortality rates were in the West Midlands, Yorkshire and The Humber, and North West of England, where there were 0.45 deaths per 1,000 live births.

The largest increase was in the West Midlands, where rates rose by 21.6 per cent between 2015 and 2016.

Vasita Patel, from the ONS, said: ‘While unexplained infant deaths increased in 2016 for the first time in three years the total remains low in historical terms.

‘The increase was driven by a rise in unascertained deaths among infant girls.

‘However, due to the low numbers involved the overall increase in unexplained infant deaths is not statistically significant.’