Day care centers in metropolitan areas have started using sensors to monitor sleeping infants to prevent sudden death syndrome amid major staff shortages.
The move is intended to help caregivers detect abnormalities early and reduce the psychological pressure of constantly checking on the breathing and sleeping posture of the children.
In 2016, there were 13 cases of children dying at nursery schools nationwide. Ten died while asleep, according to the Cabinet Office.
According to the health ministry, there are roughly 100 cases every year of sudden infant death syndrome — unexplained deaths that usually occur during sleep — among seemingly healthy babies less than 1 year old.
Although the causes of SIDS deaths remain unknown, the ministry urges caregivers to make sure children sleep on their backs to lower the risk.
“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 in January.
A tablet device held by one of the school’s staffers showed the posture of each child napping at the facility, with arrows indicating whether they were face up or on their sides.
The day care center is taking part in a wider experiment organized by a study group involving the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.
Once attached to children’s inner shirts, the round, flat sensors about 4 cm in diameter monitor body movements during asleep. The tablets alert caregivers if a child stops breathing or starts sleeping face down.
Other sensors can be placed underneath bed sheets.
At the Global Kids nursery school in Shinjuku, staff members check and record the breathing and posture every five minutes with or without sensors.
“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.”
The facility operator said it will consider whether to adopt the system after receiving feedback from the staff.
Some municipalities are using subsidies to promote the technology at nursery schools. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government decided last September to shoulder up to ¥1 million per facility to buy the sensors and related devices.
The decision came after a 1-year-old boy died at a nursery school in Chuo Ward in March 2016 after staff failed to check on him for at least 50 minutes. His parents have since urged nursery schools to make sure children sleep on their backs.
“We have received a very large number of applications, although we have yet to finalize the total,” said a metropolitan government official in charge of the subsidy program.
Separately, Tokyo’s Adachi Ward and the city of Kawaguchi in Saitama Prefecture are offering financial help to introduce the monitoring system, while the health ministry has earmarked ¥310 million in the fiscal 2017 extra budget to help support the purchase of equipment to prevent accidents.
The government has been pushing the use of technology at day care centers to reduce the use of handwritten records. Caregivers, for example, normally record and keep track of each child’s attendance and communicate with parents about their child’s activities each day using notebooks.
By streamlining tasks with technology, the government is aiming to ease workloads and increase capacity at the facilities, which will in turn allow more women to enter the workforce as the nation deals with a labor shortage.
Many qualified nursery school teachers have left the industry due to the heavy workload and low wages that they believe are ill compensation for their responsibilities.
The average monthly wage of a nursery school worker was ¥216,000, some ¥90,000 less than the average for all industries, according to a 2016 survey by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry. The central and local governments have taken steps to narrow the wage gap.
But some nursery school staff cautioned that the use of technology is not a cure-all.
“Sensors cannot fix the posture of children. Only humans can respond to various situations by looking at their faces,” one caregiver said.
A welfare ministry official said the need for human checks remains: “The sensors merely play a supplementary role.”