Bereavement experts and counsellors give views on Eastenders controversial story line

The cot death plot in TV soap Eastenders, where bereaved mother Ronnie (Samantha Womack) swaps her dead baby for Kat's (Jessie Wallace), has caused a storm of controversy with thousands of viewers complaining to the BBC. Bereavement experts and counsellors give their views on the shocking storyline and talk about coping with a family tragedy.

The cot death plot in TV soap Eastenders, where bereaved mother Ronnie (Samantha Womack) swaps her dead baby for Kat's (Jessie Wallace), has caused a storm of controversy with thousands of viewers complaining to the BBC. Bereavement experts and counsellors give their views on the shocking storyline and talk about coping with a family tragedy.

By Gabrielle Fagan

Cot death - the sudden and unexpected death of a baby - has been thrust into the media's spotlight after featuring in a controversial EastEnders storyline on BBC One.

While it undoubtedly raised awareness of what, according to the Foundation for the Study of Infant Deaths (FSID), is still the biggest killer of babies over one month old in the UK - claiming around 300 infants' lives every year - many were outraged by the plot twist.

Reportedly more than 10,000 viewers complained to the BBC after the programme showed character Ronnie Branning (Samantha Womack) finding her baby dead from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, and then swapping her child for the baby son of barmaid Kat Moon (Jessie Wallace).

Mothers who had lost children to cot death were among those who condemned the 'baby swap' as 'unrealistic', 'hurtful' and particularly damaging for portraying bereaved mothers as 'deranged'.

One bereaved parent, Sophie Bissmire, was asked by the soap's producers to help some of the cast prior to filming by describing the personal devastation that she and her family felt after the death of her baby.

She met actors Jessie Wallace and her on-screen partner Alfie (Shane Ritchie) in October.

"They wanted an insight into how the death affects you and how it affects a couple's relationship," says Sophie, 39, whose daughter Neave died aged three months.

She says the actors, who are both parents, were emotional as she spoke of the day, 11 years ago, when she found that her "beautiful daughter whose smile was so lovely it would send shivers through your body" had died.

"It was the most unbelievable shock because the day she died started out normally. There was no sign anything was wrong with her and in fact, she had just learnt to hold and shake her rattle by herself for the first time," she recalls.

A full post mortem showed their baby had died of an overwhelming staphylococcus aureus infection.

During those first weeks following their bereavement she and husband John had to deal with their emotions as well as the practicalities of organising a funeral.

"I explained to them that you struggle so much because you can't bear to believe that it's real and has happened and yet talking to the police, the hospital, organising a funeral makes it all so real. It's unbearable and agonising and you literally feel a physical pain in your stomach which lasts for weeks," she says.

"You also feel totally alone and as though you're the only people in the world to suffer a tragedy like this."

"Jessie had tears in her eyes during our talk and she and Shane were both so sympathetic, understanding and anxious to portray such a sensitive situation correctly."

So Sophie, 39, who has two children aged 18 and 10, was shocked to be told later that day of the 'baby swap' plot twist.

"I told the programme researcher at the time that the tragedy of a baby dying is surely enough, and you don't need to add any more drama to that. I said I couldn't imagine any bereaved mother doing that," she says.

"While your emotions are so all over the place that you're not yourself, not thinking straight and often not in control of your feelings, you certainly don't want anyone else's baby, you just desperately want your own back."

She is a volunteer for baby charity FSID, whose aim is to help prevent unexpected deaths in infancy and promote infant health.

The charity said it was consulted by the programme makers, but only on cot death risk factors, bereavement and the involvement of health professionals and the police.

Although the charity acknowledges that the drama's focus on cot death resulted in a 500% increase in those visiting its online information pages, it said depicting a mother 'swapping' a baby could not be described "as a typical, or even likely, reaction of a bereaved parent".

Justine Roberts, founder of parents online social network, Mumsnet, complained to the BBC on behalf of Mumsnetters. She cited in her letter the moving posting of one member, who said: "It's a testament to our strength and self control that bereaved parents are largely invisible. You wouldn't know us if we passed you in the street. If anything we are more compassionate and aware because we would not wish the loss of a child on our worst enemy."

In fact, far from resorting to taking someone's baby the majority of mothers will struggle to cope with seeing or even being near other people's babies in the immediate aftermath of a loss, points out Jean Simons, support and education manager for FSID.

"Many parents already feel a sense of isolation after losing a child, because people are often scared of talking to them and may even avoid them because they don't know how to deal with such an emotional situation, or are concerned about upsetting the parents even further."

"So portraying them inaccurately as potential baby snatchers is certainly not helpful and could make people even more nervous of approaching them."

In general, she advises, that the best thing people can do is to simply acknowledge the parents' loss and allow them, if they wish, to talk about the baby.

"Ignoring them or what's happened can only make them feel excluded and unwelcome at a time when they need every support and may need to share their emotions and talk about their loss," she says.

She points out that it's quite common for parents to worry wrongly, "that their emotional responses and actions, which sometimes their family and friends may find hard to understand, aren't normal."

Some mothers, she explains, won't have the baby's room disturbed or cleared for a long period after the loss, while others may wish to sleep there - and that's a recognised part of the process of mourning.

"Some experience auditory or visual hallucinations, when they think they can still 'hear' the baby or may wake suddenly and think they 'see' the baby," says Simons.

"That can be very frightening for them and they can worry they are going mad with grief, but again it's normal," she adds.

"Others carry on including an item of the baby's clothing in the family wash, keep a baby seat in the car, and may continue buying baby products such as nappies: This may worry relatives."

"But leaving things unchanged and continuing routines for a period can be comforting and allows people over time to adjust to such a sudden loss. It helps them feel that the baby still has a presence in the family."

With support, she says, parents are able over time to cope and deal with their tragedy, but she stresses that those who do have serious concerns about their mental state, or whose relatives are worried, should seek medical advice.

Now the initial media furore has abated, FSID's director Joyce Epstein would like focus to be given to the latest research revealing that up to half of parents aren't following evidence-based 'Reduce the Risk' advice that could help reduce the numbers of cot deaths.

"Among those at greatest risk of experiencing a cot death are very young parents, still in their teens," says Epstein.

"If we are to get safe-sleep messages to be accepted, particularly by hard-to-reach groups, we can't rely on leaflets."

"More babies' lives could be saved if the safety advice was regularly, not rarely, discussed on TV and radio."

Reducing the risk of cot death

Advice for parents to reduce the risk of cot death from the Foundation for the Study of Infant Deaths (FSID).

:: Cut out smoking in pregnancy - fathers too - and don't let anyone smoke in the same room as your baby.

:: Place your baby on their back to sleep (and not on the front or side).

:: Do not let your baby get too hot, and keep your baby's head uncovered.

:: Place your baby with their feet to the foot of the cot, to prevent them wriggling down under the covers, or use a baby sleep bag.

:: Never sleep with your baby on a sofa or armchair.

:: The safest place for your baby to sleep is in a crib or cot in a room with you for the first six months.

:: It's especially dangerous for your baby to sleep in your bed if you or your partner are a smoker, even if you never smoke in bed or at home; have been drinking alcohol; take medication or drugs that make you drowsy; or feel very tired. It is also dangerous if your baby was born before 37 weeks; or weighed less than 2.5kg or 5 lbs at birth.

:: Don't forget, accidents can happen: You might roll over in your sleep and suffocate your baby; or your baby could get caught between the wall and the bed, or could roll out of an adult bed and be injured.

:: Settling your baby to sleep (day and night) with a dummy can reduce the risk of cot death, even if the dummy falls out while your baby is asleep.

:: Breastfeed your baby. Establish breastfeeding before starting to use a dummy.