Two days, five babies die in their sleep
Darren A. Nichols and Joe Menard / The Detroit News
WAYNE -- Five babies were smothered to death this week while sleeping, including three who were in bed with their parents, prompting Wayne County on Wednesday to launch a campaign aimed at ending the practice of bed sharing.
County Executive Robert Ficano said that although the practice may have been passed on down generationally, it's still unsafe.
"We're trying to send out the message that we realize that this might be a family tradition or one that you feel is harmless in sleeping in with a child," Ficano said. "(But) for us, it's very obvious that this has led to the increase in the number of unfortunate deaths in Wayne County. It may be a very beloved tradition for some families to do, and (they might) not realize what they are exposing their child to."
Five children, ranging from 27 days to 3 months old, died on Monday and Tuesday. Four lived in Detroit, and one was in Ecorse, Wayne County Medical Examiner Carl Schmidt said.
All five cases remain under investigation.
"That's a lot in a short time, which means something needs to be done to get through to people that this actually could happen," Schmidt said. "If you have a crib, use it for your child. Don't use it for storage."
The county plans to give away 200 cribs as part of its effort to get parents to put their babies to sleep in cribs.
About half of all parents are sleeping at least part of the time in the same bed as their babies, said James McKenna, a biological anthropology professor at the University of Notre Dame who runs the university's Mother-Baby Behavioral Sleep Laboratory.
"There is nothing intrinsically dangerous about bed sharing," said McKenna, who wrote the book "Sleeping with Your Baby: A Parent's Guide to Cosleeping." "The problem is not everyone bed shares safely."
He rejects efforts to eradicate the practice, saying co-sleeping and bed sharing has several benefits, especially for breastfeeding mothers.
Co-sleeping allows mothers to quickly respond to the infant if it cries or chokes, or needs to be warmed or cooled. The physical closeness between mother and baby also helps regulate the infant's breathing, sleep state, arousal patterns, heart rate and body temperature, McKenna said. "It's quite expected and normal and healthy that mother and baby are sleeping on the same surface," he said, adding the decision of whether to co-sleep "belongs only to the mother and father."
"It's not a recommendation that everyone should bed-share," he said. "A one-size-fits-all strategy doesn't work for anything."
In Wayne County, the goal of Operation Safe Sleep is to save babies from premature death by educating people about unsafe sleeping positions and places. Other concerns are people who wrap babies too tightly or have them sleep with stuffed animals in the crib.
The overall infant mortality rate in the county is 11 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2005, officials said. The statewide rate for the same time period is 7.9.
But when broken down by race, three black babies die for every one white baby that dies before its first birthday, officials said.
Deaths of children caused by sleeping with their parents and being smothered have risen from 44 to 50 from 2005 to 2006, officials said. There have already been 30 deaths so far this year, but officials said if the trend isn't stemmed, the yearly total could reach 60.
The Wayne County Department of Public Health will work with area hospitals and community organizations to help spread the message through brochures printed in English, Spanish and Arabic. The brochure can be downloaded from the county's Web site www.waynecounty.com. "We see a trend we want to get out in front of," said Loretta Davis, the county's director of public health. "This is a very important. We need to work toward reversing this trend."
You can reach Darren A. Nichols at (734) 462-2190.
Safe sleep tips
Wayne County is urging people not to share a bed with a baby, but some experts offer guidance if they do:
# Don't sleep with baby while under the influence of alcohol or drugs, which can make it harder to wake up if the baby is in danger.
# Don't put the baby on pillows or cover its head with a blanket. Also, keep stuffed animals off the bed.
# Make sure there are no gaps between the bed and the headboard where the baby can get stuck.
# Don't take your baby to bed if you smoke.
# Don't let infants share a bed with older children.
Source: James McKenna, biological anthropology professor at the University of Notre Dame