The Safely Sleeping Babies Project, now in its final stage, is working with the South Australian Aboriginal community to reduce the higher risk of Aboriginal infant deaths across the state.
Since 2019, it has worked with 70 Aboriginal families and 235 healthcare professionals to raise awareness about the possible dangers of co-sleeping, and how it can be made safer with a simple device, described by families as a “bread box”, due to its rectangular shape.
The 'Pepi Pod' was originally designed in New Zealand and contains air pockets for extra airflow, providing the baby with its own sleeping space.
One of the project's co-researchers, Dr Nina Sivertsen from Flinders University, says the project aims to help eliminate the risks of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) and Sudden Unexpected Death in Infancy (SUDI).
“We wanted to see if the Pepi Pod program was experienced as culturally safe and if First Nations families would even use it,” said Dr Sivertsen.
“Families told us that one of the best parts of the Pepi Pod program is that ‘you don’t have to worry’ babies were in their ‘own little comfort zone’.
“Babies were ‘peaceful and safe’ and you could ‘see him’, ‘feel him’ ‘touch him’ and ‘hear him’, while baby slept safely in the pod."
The project, a major collaboration between universities and health organisations and led by Professor Julian Grant from Charles Sturt University in NSW, was triggered by a coronial inquest into the death of an Aboriginal baby who had been co-sleeping with a parent in 2014.
“This never has been and never will be okay,” said Professor Julian Grant.
“While bed sharing has many benefits, it is also associated with infant death and is not recommended by SA Health."
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander infants are over-represented in SIDS and SUDI cases, with rates four times that of non-Indigenous babies.
In the eight years to 2013, 29 Aboriginal babies died in cases where unsafe sleeping environments were noted.
Dr Sivertsen says the Pepi Pod is a safe sleep space alternative that recognises cultural practices of co-sleeping.
Research assistants Sharon Watts and Anna Dowling have worked to connect the project to Aboriginal communities across the state. They both believe a heightened awareness of SIDS and SUDI is key.
“Sharon and I would come out and meet with the families and go through the Pepi-pod and the safe sleeping process," Ms Dowling says.
"If they had any questions about safe sleep or the project in general, we were there to answer those questions."
Likening the Pepi Pod to a plastic tub is a common feedback from participants, Ms Watts said, but families soon become aware of its effectiveness.
“It is so important, really important," said Ms Watts.
Dr Sivertsen says the response from families has been overwhelmingly positive and she hopes the project will be rolled out in hospitals and primary care facilities across South Australia.
“It is a good program that increases the family knowledge about safe sleep, and with the message stick the forwarding of information, another family talks to another family - it’s a conversation starter,” she says.
The trialling period for the Pepi Pod or Safely Sleeping Baby Project will finish at the end of June.
First time mother Shailah Cleaver Karpany was happy to be part of the trial when she brought her daughter Liamarni home for the first time.
She was scared to leave her in a bassinet.
“They showed me how to wrap baby and how to place her in the Pepi-pod, and to have her a certain way in it so she could breathe and stuff," said Ms Karpany.