The doctor who set out to prevent cot death after losing her own baby


Parents have been urged to take precautions against SIDS, such as preventing babies from sleeping on their fronts, keeping all toys and blankets out of their cot and ensuring they do not overheat, which “has secured significant decreases in the number of babies dying,” according to the Lullaby Trust, a charity that seeks to raise awareness of SIDS. Since the Back to Sleep campaign – encouraging parents to have their infants sleep on their backs, instead of previous guidance suggesting the opposite – was launched in 1991 using research by Professor Peter Fleming at the University of Bristol, rates have dropped by 81 per cent. Anne Diamond, the TV presenter, played a pivotal role in the campaign following the cot death of her son, Sebastian, at four months, urging the then-health secretary, Virginia Bottomley, to take up the cause at a national level.

Still, the idea that her little boy had died simply because he had lain on his stomach seemed “nonsensical” to Harrington, she reflects. “You don’t just die. Something has to go catastrophically wrong with the system for someone to die, because normally, we’ve got very strong survival instincts.” While many believe the problem has gone away since sleep guidance changed, around 20,000 families globally each year still lose a child to the condition.

Harrington, an honorary research fellow at the Children’s Hospital at Westmead, New South Wales, “never believed” her study would yield the results it has. “It was such a shock,” she says of running her data that final time. She hopes the research will “bring some solace to those parents who have SIDS babies, because I’m sure almost all of them have a level of guilt that there was something they didn’t do right for their little baby to die on their watch. I want to reassure them.”

But, she admits, she has struggled to be as forgiving of herself. “Forever you think ‘What did I miss?’,” she says; the blow of what happened still “takes my breath away.” Her marriage did not survive the strain of losing her “absolutely perfect” boy, who is survived by his twin sister Charlotte, 32, and 34-year-old Alex. Both now work in intensive care; inspired, Harrington thinks, by their many visits to the children’s ward in the hospital during her research.