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Four years ago, I reported on something few people talk about in our community – the number of infants who die in unsafe sleep environments.

I learned about the issue when police officers and firefighters told me about finding dead babies who had been sleeping with parents or siblings on beds and couches. Some of the babies got tangled in sheets or blankets in cribs or smothered by excessive pillows.

At the time, only the Rochester Police Department kept statistics on the number of infant deaths related to unsafe sleep. The Medical Examiner classified the deaths as “undetermined,” also known as SIDS. But the RPD’s data was startling. The department recorded at least several deaths a year related to unsafe sleep.

After my report in 2007, I heard from many angry mothers who advocated for bed-sharing and said the parents of children who died must have been doing it wrong. Others were very suspicious of the statistics. But the fact remained there were virtually no safe sleep messages getting out to the public on either side of the issue. This contrasted sharply with public service campaigns in Philadelphia and Milwaukee.

We now know there were 41 unsafe-sleep related infant deaths from 2007-2010.

I have been truly astounded that a public health issue of this magnitude stayed in the shadows. If 10 babies were dying a year in one county from tainted formula or defective cribs, there would be a dire sense of emergency.

In the last few years, the Monroe County Child Fatality Review team and the Baby Safe Sleep Coalition have done a lot of work in defining the problem and working to educate families.

Today, they announced a plan to distribute safe sleep brochures with birth certificates for the 11,000 babies expected to be born in Monroe County this year. At a press conference, the organizers said they were relying on private dollars and Xerox’s printing donation. It had taken them months, if not years, to get to this point. The county executive noted the effort won’t cost taxpayers money.

Let’s hope this makes a difference. Something tells me it’s a start.

2 Responses to Infant Deaths Getting Noticed

  1. January 3, 2012 at 6:07 pm Dick Ginkowski responds:

    From today’s Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel:

    Nearly 2-month-old girl is city’s last co-sleeping death of 2011
    By Karen Herzog of the Journal Sentinel
    Updated: 3:25 p.m.

    A baby girl, nearly two months old, died the last day of 2011 while sleeping with three other children on two crib mattresses pushed together on the living room floor of a north side house, authorities said Tuesday.

    The baby named Brandi was last seen alive by two aunts between 4:30 a.m. and 5 a.m. on Saturday, when the 22-year-old aunt passed the baby to a 10-year-old aunt for a bottle feeding and went to bed in the 3300 block of N. 10th St., according to a Milwaukee County medical examiner’s report released Tuesday.

    At 9:47 a.m., the 22-year-old aunt returned to the living room to check on the children. But when she started to cover the baby with a blanket, she noticed the baby was unresponsive and lying face up in the crook of the sleeping 10-year-old’s left arm, the report said.

    The 22-year-old told authorities she took the unresponsive baby upstairs to the baby’s grandmother’s room. The grandmother and aunt noted the baby was cold and not breathing, so they took her downstairs to a bedroom where the baby’s mother and father were sleeping, according to the medical examiner’s report. The baby’s father attempted CPR, but the baby was pronounced dead at 10:19 a.m. after paramedics were unable to revive her.

    A police officer at the scene reported no visible trauma or injury to the baby, who was 1 month, 28 days old.

    The baby’s mother told authorities nothing about the baby’s behavior the day before had concerned her. She reported that Brandi had trouble keeping formula down and would vomit, but that it was normal for her, and had been occurring since birth, the medical examiner’s report said.

    The baby’s father told authorities that the baby usually slept in bed with him.

    A follow-up notation on the medical examiner’s report, dated Tuesday, said that Brandi had been staying with her mother’s brother for about a week, but the night before she died, the brother dropped Brandi off at Brandi’s father’s house.

    The follow-up note, from a Bureau of Child Welfare worker, said that when she went to the home where the baby died on Saturday, the family told her that when the uncle dropped Brandi off the night before, her eyes were black; they could not distinguish the pupil from the sclera. She also had been throwing up during the day and her head was “jerking” from side to side, the family told the child welfare worker.

    Brandi was at least the 12th Milwaukee infant to die in 2011 while in an unsafe sleep environment.

    Four of the 2011 co-sleeping deaths occurred after Nov. 9, when city officials vowed to reduce Milwaukee’s infant mortality rate by 10%, and unveiled a new “shock” advertising campaign that drew national attention to efforts to reduce infant deaths by discouraging co-sleeping.

  2. January 3, 2012 at 9:41 pm Darla Spafford-Davis responds:

    First of all, the situation described above has less to do with an unsafe sleeping situaton, although that certainly seems to be a part of it, and much, much more to do with plain old child neglect.

    The baby was having trouble keeping down food & was vomiting, yet was given to a 10-year-old child for a feeding in the middle of the night, with no adult supervision. With the trouble feeding, at the bare minimum you would want an adult monitoring the feeding and the baby to be monitored after eating to make sure she does not chok eon vomit.
    Plus it sounds like she was sick when she was dropped off; “her eyes were black; they could not distinguish the pupil from the sclera. She also had been throwing up during the day and her head was “jerking” from side to side,” yet no one sought out medical attention for her?

    Poor baby; rest in peace little Brandi.

    But, I am one of those crazy, bed-sharing parents. I co-slept with all three of my girls (and yes, even all at the same time, which does NOT fall under a safe sleep practice).

    Here is an article with information re: safe & unsafe co-sleeping practices: http://www.askdrsears.com/topics/sleep-problems/sleep-safety/safe-co-sleeping-habits

    Safe Co-sleeping Habits
    No matter where you have your baby sleep, be sure you provide a safe sleeping environment. If you decide to share sleep with your baby, and this arrangement is working for your family, observe these precautions:

    • Take precautions to prevent baby from rolling out of bed, even though it is unlikely when baby is sleeping next to mother. Like heat-seeking missiles, babies automatically gravitate toward a warm body. Yet, to be safe, place baby between mother and a guardrail or push the mattress flush against the wall and position baby between mother and the wall. Guardrails enclosed with plastic mesh are safer than those with slats, which can entrap baby’s limbs or head. Be sure the guardrail is flush against the mattress so there is no crevice that baby could sink into.
    • Place baby adjacent to mother, rather than between mother and father. Mothers we have interviewed on the subject of sharing sleep feel they are so physically and mentally aware of their baby’s presence even while sleeping, that it’s extremely unlikely they would roll over onto their baby. Some fathers, on the other hand, may not enjoy the same sensitivity of baby’s presence while asleep; so it is possible they might roll over on or throw out an arm onto baby. After a few months of sleep-sharing, most dads seem to develop a keen awareness of their baby’s presence.
    • Place baby to sleep on his back.
    • Use a large bed, preferably a queen-size or king-size. A king-size bed may wind up being your most useful piece of “baby furniture.” If you only have a cozy double bed, use the money that you would ordinarily spend on a fancy crib and other less necessary baby furniture and treat yourselves to a safe and comfortable king-size bed.
    • Some parents and babies sleep better if baby is still in touching and hearing distance, but not in the same bed. For them, a bedside co-sleeper is a safe option. We recommend the bedside co-sleepers at http://www.armsreach.com.

    • Do not sleep with your baby if:
    1. You are under the influence of any drug (such as alcohol or tranquilizing medications) that diminishes your sensitivity to your baby’s presence. If you are drunk or drugged, these chemicals lessen your arousability from sleep.
    2. You are extremely obese. Obesity itself may cause sleep apnea in the mother, in addition to the smothering danger.
    3. You are exhausted from sleep deprivation. This lessens your awareness of your baby and your arousability from sleep.
    4. You are breastfeeding a baby on a cushiony surface, such as a waterbed or couch. An exhausted mother could fall asleep breastfeeding and roll over on the baby.
    5. You are the child’s baby-sitter. A baby-sitter’s awareness and arousability is unlikely to be as acute as a mother’s.
    • Don’t allow older siblings to sleep with a baby under nine months. Sleeping children do not have the same awareness of tiny babies as do parents, and too small or too crowded a bed space is an unsafe sleeping arrangement for a tiny baby.
    • Don’t fall asleep with baby on a couch. Baby may get wedged between the back of the couch and the larger person’s body, or baby’s head may become buried in cushion crevices or soft cushions.
    • Do not sleep with baby on a free-floating, wavy waterbed or similar “sinky” surface in which baby could suffocate.
    • Don’t overheat or overbundle baby. Be particularly aware of overbundling if baby is sleeping with a parent. Other warm bodies are an added heat source.
    • Don’t wear lingerie with string ties longer than eight inches. Ditto for dangling jewelry. Baby may get caught in these entrapments.
    • Avoid pungent hair sprays, deodorants, and perfumes. Not only will these camouflage the natural maternal smells that baby is used to and attracted to, but foreign odors may irritate and clog baby’s tiny nasal passages. Reserve these enticements for sleeping alone with your spouse.

    Use common sense when sharing sleep. Anything that could cause you to sleep more soundly than usual or that alters your sleep patterns can affect your baby’s safety. Nearly all the highly suspected (but seldom proven) cases of fatal “overlying” I could find in the literature could have been avoided if parents had observed common sense sleeping practices.

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