Deadly Routine: Baby Bedtime Dangers
ST. JOSEPH COUNTY, Ind. (WNDU) - October is Safe Sleep Awareness Month and there’s a dangerous routine that healthcare experts want you to stop: sleeping with your baby. There have been an alarming number of sleep-related infant deaths in St. Joseph County this year alone. There have been eight infants lost to what health officials say is a largely preventable cause. The babies died in an unsafe sleep environment.
Sadly we’ve been here before. In 2017, there were 11 sleep-related infant deaths in St. Joseph County.
Among them? Little four-week-old Journey.
“She had very big brown eyes. Her eyes were really big. She’d be four going on five in November,” said Journey’s mom who wants to remain anonymous, but is willing to share her story to serve as a warning to parents and caregivers.
Journey was a little bundle of joy.
“Very small. She was a very small baby. I am very thankful that I have a lot of pictures of her,” said Journey’s mom.
Four weeks after giving birth, Journey’s mom went back to work. She admits she was exhausted.
“I’d get up at three in the morning to get to work at five,” explained Journey’s mom. “I think I put a lot of pressure on myself by going to work too soon.”
But as a single mom, she had to support her four kids.
“That night I nursed her, she fell asleep and I put her in her bassinet. And she began to move around and fuss a little bit like she wanted to be back on mom,” said Journey’s mom.
And so she brought Journey to bed with her to nurse. She says she knew better, but she had done it before without a problem.
“Yes, I did risk it Sunday night and she was just fine. So Monday, I said, ‘Journey, Mommy’s got to get some sleep.’ So, I put her back on the breast and I was laying in bed and I fell asleep and woke up a couple of hours later and discovered she wasn’t breathing,” said Journey’s mom.
“When one of these deaths occur, we study that and look at the circumstances and everything that happened,” said Sally Dixon, a registered nurse and Coordinator of Maternal Infant Health Initiatives at the St. Joseph County Health Department. She’s troubled by the recent spike in infant mortality.
“This is the highest number of sleep-related deaths we’ve had since 2017,” said Dixon.
It’s her job to review each one of the county’s sudden unexplained infant deaths.
“In the eight years we’ve been doing that, we haven’t had an infant death where a baby was put to sleep using all of the ABCs,” said Dixon.
The ABCs of safe baby sleep: Alone. On their backs. And in a crib. Every nap. Every night. Every time.
“In every case that’s happened in our community in the last eight years there have always been one or more unsafe sleep factors present,” said Dixon.
The biggest problem? Bedding-including pillows and blankets, often in a shared adult bed.
“Babies under four months old are at higher risk for this kind of death. If something is blocking their ability to breathe they can’t turn their head or they aren’t going to move a blanket out of the way like we would. They don’t have that ability yet, they’re just developing,” explained Dixon.
There are other important factors that put infants at higher risk, including parents smoking, using alcohol, or drugs. And that’s not just illicit drugs.
“Even a prescription drug that makes you sleepy. Anything that makes you less alert, less likely to wake up. Sleeping more soundly can increase the risk,” said Dixon.
Across the nation and here at home, infant mortality numbers are higher for communities of color.
“What’s important to note, is that it’s not a cultural issue, it’s a systemic issue,” said Kelli Brien of Mahogany Maternity. Brien is a doula, maternal health specialist and patient advocate in St. Joseph County.
“We have to say, ‘Stop! There’s a problem. We’re dying,” said Brien. “Right now black and brown communities are suffering from the issues that are not being taken care of. Like leave. Going back to work too early. Not having the community. Having the stigma of mental health. Not being able to find the help that they need.”
“Don’t be scared to ask for help. That’s what I’ve learned – you can’t be scared to ask for help. There’s help out there,” said Sierra Kelly, mother of two. Kelly has help with her two little ones at home. Dream is the baby. Sierra learned safe sleep techniques at the hospital and practices them every day.
“She’ll fall asleep and I’ll just put her in the Pack-and-Play just on her back- nothing in her crib with her. No blankets or anything. She has a sleeper on – so it’s fine,” said Kelly.
“We work very hard to educate,” said WIC Director Sue Taylor. Taylor has been educating new moms and dads for over 30 years in St. Joseph County. She says she’s devastated to see the numbers on the rise again.
Her office gives out cardboard baby boxes; a simple yet safe place for a newborn. There’s help for low-income families through BABE coupons.
Taylor says all families have access to safe sleep spaces.
“Because you can go over to BABE and get a Pack-and Play and you can go and get a crib with BABE coupons. So we provide places for babies to sleep, so it’s really heartbreaking when you hear about these babies that just don’t make it. But they’re not in their safe place to sleep,” said Taylor.
And what’s frustrating for health officials, is that there are parents who make the conscious decision to co-sleep with their infants.
“We know through polling and national reporting that more and more people are sharing a bed with their babies. Choosing to do that. That’s not what we recommend,” said Dixon.
Journey’s mom is haunted by the fact that she knew the risks.
“I think that’s the hardest thing to live with now, is that I knew better,” said Journey’s mom.
She went on to have a little boy who is now three.
“He slept in a bassinette. Nothing around him. Not even a blanket,” said Journey’s mom. “From the trauma with Journey, I think it scared me even more with him. I just took it a lot more seriously.”
Her message for moms with newborns?
“Just to have that plan and identify that support system. Utilize that. Just speak up for help if you need it. Don’t ever fall asleep with your baby and even risk it once because it could be the last, the last time. You can’t take that back,” said Journey’s mom.
The St. Joseph County Health Department has launched a new education campaign called #RoomToBreathe, reminding parents to remove all pillows, blankets, crib bumpers, and toys from an infant’s sleep space.
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