Baltimore sees spike in sleep-related infant deaths

Baltimore health officials are urging parents with infants to practice safe sleep practices after recording a spike in sleep-related infant deaths in the city.

Twelve babies have died in their sleep so far this year, compared with seven last year.

The new deaths prompted City Health Commissioner Dr. Leana Wen and others to act on Monday.

“We all have to do our part to help the most vulnerable in our community,” Wen said. “Even one baby dying is one too many.”

The city had been making strides in curbing sleep-related deaths — the seven deaths last year were the lowest on record — and health officials said they can’t point to any primary reason for the sudden increase. Until now, the number of deaths had declined every year since 2009 when there was a record 27 deaths.

Some of the babies died while sleeping on an adult bed or sofa rather than a crib. Or they were lying in soft bedding or surrounded by heavy blankets and pillows. Some were lying on their stomach or side rather than on their backs, which sleep guidelines say is the safest position.

Health officials says it’s important to understand what is causing the deaths and reverse the trend because sleep-related deaths are the second leading cause of infant mortality in Baltimore behind complications related to preterm birth and low birth weight.

“We know that infants can sleep safely and death can be prevented,” said Rebecca Dineen, assistant commissioner of maternal and child health for the Baltimore City Health Department

The health department encourages parents to follow the A-B-C-D method — alone, back, crib, don’t smoke.

That means babies should sleep alone and always on their back. They also should sleep in a crib that is free of blankets and pillows. They should never smoke cigarettes or marijuana in a home with a baby or infant and parents should not wrap babies in too many blankets or they are in danger of overheating.

The city has been working on educating residents about sleep safety practices for a number of years. It launched the B'More Healthy Babies program in 2009 to help reduce all causes of infant mortality in the city.

The program is led by the health department, in cooperation with the nonprofit Family League of Baltimore and Health Care Access Maryland. Under the initiative, more than 150 partner agencies work with families to ensure babies are healthy. The agencies provide safe cribs, home visits and parenting classes among other services.

The city recorded the lowest infant mortality rate on record in 2015 when 8.4 per 1,000 births ended in death. City health officials attributed much of the decline to fewer sleep-related deaths.

The issue of infant death is particularly personal to Wen, who gave birth to a baby boy this summer who is now 3 months old. She said one of her fears is something happening to him.

“I couldn’t imagine what it would feel like to wake up and my baby had died,” she said.

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