Story: Child and youth health

Page 4. Cot death, obesity and other child-health issues

All images & media in this story

Cot death

When a baby dies suddenly and the cause is unexplained, this is described as ‘sudden unexpected death in infancy’ (SUDI) and ‘sudden infant death syndrome’ (SIDS) by health professionals. The commonly used term is cot death.

In the 1980s SUDI rates in New Zealand were high compared to other countries and were not declining. A study found that babies whose parents smoked, who were put to sleep on their fronts or who were not breastfed had a higher chance of cot death or SUDI. Babies living in poor housing with parents on very low incomes were most at risk.

The rate of SUDI dropped from 4 per 1,000 live births in 1986 to 0.8 per 1,000 live births in 2014. The Māori rate was much higher – it also dropped, but in 2014 it was 1.7 per 1,000 live births. The rates for Pacific babies was lower at 0.8 per 1,000 live births, but higher than the rate for European and other babies (0.4 per 1,000 live births) and Asian babies (0.1 per 1,000 live births).

Around 25% of children had asthma in the 21st century, with much higher rates for Māori and Pacific children.


Obesity and overweight in New Zealand children increased in the late 20th century. This is a global trend associated with decreased levels of physical activity and increased consumption of energy-dense food and drink. People on lower incomes are more likely to be obese than those on higher incomes because less nutritional food is cheaper and easier to prepare than healthier options.

In 2017/18, 12% of children aged 2–14 years were obese. Rates were higher among Māori (17%) and Pacific children (30%).

Excessive weight in childhood can cause health conditions such as asthma, liver disease and type-2 diabetes. It is also associated with poor health and early death in adulthood.

Other issues

Ear infections are common in young children. Glue ear (an infection of the middle ear) can result in hearing loss if untreated. This affects children’s speech, learning abilities and social interactions. Exposure to cigarette smoke, a family history of ear infections and spending time in day care are risk factors.

Nut-free zone

Peanuts and tree nuts like cashews are banned in many early childhood centres and schools because they are a common cause of allergic reactions in children. Some people argue that banning nuts entirely is not possible and making claims about nut-free status can create a false sense of security. Allergy New Zealand says simple bans on their own are not enough and that schools need to have plans to minimise the exposure of vulnerable children to nuts, and ensure staff are trained to deal with emergencies.

While rates of asthma among children rose in the 1990s, the percentage of children aged 2–14 years with medicated asthma dropped from around 17% in 2015/16 to 14% in 2016/17. Rates were highest among Māori and Pacific children and those living in the most deprived areas.

Eczema is associated with asthma and is found in 15–20% of children and it is most prevalent among Māori and Pacific children.

How to cite this page:

Kerryn Pollock, 'Child and youth health - Cot death, obesity and other child-health issues', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 24 July 2024)

Story by Kerryn Pollock, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 29 Nov 2018