Japan's daycare centres use sensors to prevent sudden infant death in sleep

TOKYO - Daycare centres in Japan's metropolitan areas, which are facing a serious staff shortage, have begun to use sensors to monitor sleeping infants and prevent sudden deaths.

Such a move is intended to help the few caregivers detect abnormalities early, and also reduce the psychological pressure on them to check frequently the breathing as well as sleeping posture of babies, Kyodo News agency reported on Monday (Feb 12).

"It is helpful that (a device) accurately takes a record every five minutes," Misako Higuchi, head of a Global Kids nursery school in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward, said.

A tablet device held by one of the school's employees showed the posture of each child taking a nap at the facility with arrows indicating whether the child was "face up" or "on (his or her) side".

Japan's health ministry has urged caregivers to make sure children sleep on their back to lower the risk of death.

In 2016, there were 13 cases of children dying at nursery schools in Japan, of which 10 occurred during their sleep, according to the Cabinet Office.

The health ministry data also show Japan has about 100 cases yearly of sudden infant death syndrome - or unexplained death usually during sleep - of seemingly healthy babies less than a year old.

At the Global Kids nursery school, round flat sensors are attached to the children's inner shirts. The sensors - measuring 4cm in diameter - will monitor the child's body movement while he or she is asleep, and the tablets will alert caregivers if a child stops breathing or starts sleeping face down, Kyodo reported.

Staff members check and record the breathing and posture of the children every five minutes with or without sensors.

The daycare centre is taking part in an Information and Communications Technology (ICT) experiment carried out at nursery schools organised by a study group involving the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.

"It provides us with reassurance to know the machine is supporting us," said Higuchi. "Although we will not reduce the number of times our staff check the children, (the sensors) give us some relief psychologically."

However, some nursery school caregivers noted that ICT devices cannot adjust the sleeping positions of the infants.

"Only humans can respond to various situations by looking at their faces," a caregiver said.

Agreeing, an official at the Health, Labour and Welfare Ministry said, "The sensors merely play a supplementary role. Basically it is necessary to check (the situation) with human eyes."

The Tokyo government decided last September to provide up to 1 million yen (S$12,200) per facility for the purchase of sensors and other related devices.

Such a decision followed the death of a one-year-old boy at a nursery school in Tokyo in March 2016 after caregivers failed to check on him for at least 50 minutes.

"We have received a very large number of applications, although we have yet to finalise the total," Kyodo quoted the Tokyo metropolitan government official in charge of the subsidy programme as saying.

Separately, Tokyo's Adachi Ward and the city of Kawaguchi - in neighbouring Saitama Prefecture - are also providing financial assistance for the use of the monitoring system.

The health ministry has earmarked 310 million yen in the fiscal 2017 extra budget to help support the use of ICT to prevent accidents.

Caregivers currently write down in notebooks children's attendance and how they spend their time at the nursery schools, so that they can report to the parents.

The government hopes that by streamlining tasks through ICT, the workload of caregivers' will be reduced. This will help increase the capacity of daycare facilities despite the shortage of staff, and allow more women to leave their children at childcare centres to return to the workforce.

The labour shortage at daycare centres arose after many qualified nursery school teachers quit their jobs due to the heavy workload and low wages that they said did not match their responsibilities, Kyodo reported.

The average monthly salary of a nursery school worker was 216,000 yen (S$2,600), some 90,000 yen less than the average of all industries, according to a 2016 survey by the Health, Labour and Welfare Ministry.