Newborns - safe sleeping
Red nose resources for health professionals includes safe sleeping brochures in English, Arabic, Burmese, Chinese (simplified), Chin (Hakha), Dari, Hindi, Karen, Khmer, Persian, Punjabi and Vietnamese.
A range of resources are available to
help parents with safe sleeping.
The safe sleeping checklist for health professionals and parents is available in a number of languages:
Difficulty settling babies
It's not ok to shake babies - brochure for parents
A brochure for health professionals to give to parents during the
Key Ages and Stages visits includes guidance on why it is
dangerous to shake a baby and what to do if a baby has been shaken. This information is available in English, Arabic, Burmese, Chinese (simplified), Chin (Hakha), Dari, Hindi, Karen, Khmer, Persian, Punjabi and Vietnamese.
Parents - sleep deprivation and fatal distraction
Sleep deprivation can lead to a condition known as Fatal Distraction.
Fatal distraction is a condition that impacts our short-term memory capacity. For parents, it can result in children being unintentionally left in cars, with potentially devastating consequences. In Australia there have been a small number of deaths because of this issue.
You should always look out for the symptoms of severe sleep deprivation and stress in parents and carers and provide support and referral as is appropriate to your role.
How it happens
This is a condition that can happen to anyone – and understanding how the human memory system works is key to understanding why fatal distraction occurs.
The human memory system
Our human memory is made up of three main systems:
- short-term memory (housed in the prefrontal cortex) which allows a person to retain a small amount of information over a matter of seconds
- the habitual memory system (housed in the basal ganglia) that governs repeated and subconscious actions, such as driving the same route each day
- long term memory, stored in the hippocampus.
A person engages their short-term memory to recall items for a short period of time, such as a rehearsing a shopping list, a ‘to-do’ list, or a sequence of events to perform a temporary action, before those items are quickly forgotten.
Short-term memory only holds about 5-9 items at any time. Once this capacity is exceeded these items start to be forgotten. For instance, when a person is distracted from rehearsing the shopping list, even for a few seconds, that distraction can be enough to erase the memory, regardless of the importance of the item.
Interference with the short-term memory system
Short-term memory is highly susceptible to interference from a number of factors including:
- diverted attention or distraction
- sleep deprivation
- acute and chronic stress.
A busy and stressful lifestyle combined with sleep deprivation can overload short-term memory capacity. We know that parents or carers often have to manage a range of competing demands every day.
Some evidence indicates that parents or carers can become distracted by these everyday requirements, compromising their short-term memory. This lapse of memory is intensified if the parent has a young baby and is experiencing associated sleep deprivation and exhaustion, along with disruption to normal routine and/or new way of life.
When short-term memory is compromised or we are distracted, our habitual memory system can take over from the short-term memory system (this has been likened to being on ‘autopilot’). We carry on with our normal (habitual) routine, and do not remember that an item was forgotten. In this situation, a ‘false memory’ can be created, where a person’s long-term memory from previous experience ‘fills in the blanks’.
When a case of fatal distraction occurs, parents or carers often genuinely believe that their child is elsewhere and safe (for example, at their early childhood education and care service), due to the phenomenon of ‘false memory’.
The risk of fatal distraction can also be increased if the child has been sleeping in the back of the car at the time the parent reaches their destination and gets out of the car, as there are fewer ‘cues’ for recalling that the child is present.
What you can do to help parents
You can help parents and carers understand the potential dangers of fatal distraction by:
- discussing fatal distraction at first time parent’s groups and supported play groups
- discussing potential strategies for parents to create routines that remind them to check their back seat before leaving the car, such as:
- using a mirror for rear-facing car seats
- leaving a bag, phone or wallet in the back of the car
- placing a child’s bag or cuddly toy in the front seat as a reminder
- creating a mental list of the things to check each time they leave the car – e.g. baby, keys, wallet, phone
- asking their childcare centre, babysitter or other carer to give them a call if they have not dropped off their child off on time
- making it routine to open the back door of the car every time they park, even if there is no one in the back seat
- asking them about family and other social supports that can assist them in times of stress and sleep deprivation.
Maternal Child Health (MCH) nurses can also use their
Key Ages and Stages appointments to inform parents and carers about fatal distraction.
For more information on Fatal Distraction, see: