The influential Confidential Enquiry into Stillbirths and Deaths in Infancy has called for a review of standards in antenatal and labour care.

Its sixth annual report, published this week, says there was a slight reduction in the number of babies who died in 1997, compared with the previous year.

But CESDI found worrying evidence that many of the 10,418 deaths could have been prevented.

It investigated 573 deaths under its 'one in 10' programme and found that different care 'might' or 'could reasonably have been expected' to have led to the baby's survival in half of them.

Mary Macintosh, director of CESDI, said: 'It is at a higher level than we have anticipated.

'Many cases of stillbirth (the largest group of deaths) are classified as 'unexplained' or 'unavoidable', but had enough been done to optimise standards then these outcomes might not have occurred.'

Better care in labour could have made a difference in 72 per cent of intrapartum deaths, with larger babies (4kg and over) particularly likely to die because of a problem during delivery.

A lack of basic skills among staff, and delays in the arrival of paediatricians, were common problems in the care of newborns.

Dr Macintosh emphasised that a great deal of work on improving standards had been set in motion since CESDI was formed in 1992.

CESDI 6th Annual report. CESDI, Chiltern Court, 188 Baker Street, London NW1 55D.£6.