September 1, 2010
In the last three years, 46 Oklahoma County babies died of sudden infant death syndrome or other sleep-related causes, according to a new Oklahoma City-County Health Department study.
Every night, an Oklahoma family carefully positioned their new baby on her back next to them, comfortable in the knowledge that they'd done their best to keep SIDS away.
But one morning, the baby didn't wake up.
The child's death certificate listed the cause unknown but the father said because the family had no crib, their 3-month-old baby slept with them in their bed. He told investigators that he just didn't know the dangers of letting the baby sleep with her mother and father.
Like that infant, most Oklahoma County babies who died were sleeping on an adult bed with an adult or sibling or both, according to a new report. Such non-SIDS deaths outnumbered SIDS and possible SIDS deaths, researchers found. More than three times as many Oklahoma County children died of non-SIDS causes compared with SIDS or possible SIDS.
"Parents need to be more aware of the dangers of sleeping with their babies. They're scared of SIDS but these different types of sleep-related deaths are even more frequent,” said Mary Beth Cox, the Oklahoma City-County Health Department's Fetal and Infant Mortality Review supervisor, who headed the study.
Oklahoma averages two infant deaths, two funerals and two grieving families every week. The state has the nation's 10th highest infant death rate, at a rate of eight deaths per 1,000 live births versus the national infant mortality rate of 6.7 per 1,000.
Pressed by those numbers, the mortality review group looked at infants' deaths over the last three years to discover why Oklahoma babies are dying after they've been tucked into bed for the night.
In the past three years, 46 Oklahoma County babies died of SIDS, sudden infant death syndrome, or other sleep-related causes, the study said.
"It's very sad. ... It's the number of kids who usually ride a school bus,” Cox said. "That's a lot of babies.”
They discovered that the biggest killers of Oklahoma County babies from 1 month to 1 year old were SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome) and sleep-related causes. For younger babies, those causes were the third-greatest cause of death, after abnormalities at birth and disorders related to preterm or low birth weight.
Other key findings• Babies should be put to sleep on their backs until their first birthday. Forty percent of babies slept on their bellies or side, the study found. After the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that parents always place babies on their backs to sleep, SIDS cases dropped by at least 50 percent in Oklahoma and the U.S. Five of six documented deaths indicated a "risky” sleep environment, such as sleeping on the side or facedown and being on or near blankets and pillows.
• Most babies (56.5 percent) who died were sleeping with one or both parents or a sibling, or both.
• Nearly 37 percent of cases included the presence of soft pillows or blankets near or under the infant. Instead, use sleep sacks, or wearable blankets designed not to ride up over a baby's face.
James Marks, a parent and the state Health Department's director of the child and adolescent health division, said parents fall into less desirable sleep habits for their babies for reasons ranging from cultural issues to a lack of the most recent knowledge about parenting.
"There's not anything that can truly prepare an individual for the 24/7 around-the-clock care,” he said.
So, if a child is colicky or fussy or doesn't sleep well or eat well, parents are willing to make small allowances so the sleep-deprived child and parents get a chance to sleep, he said.
"Ultimately, the safest sleeping surface for that child is going to be separate but in close proximity,” Marks said.
He said it's not surprising when those conditions result in a sleep-deprived parent being less likely to wake up if he or she accidentally lies on top of the child, as researchers found in one death.
The state Health Department has a "Preparing for a Lifetime” initiative to educate parents about raising healthy children.
Cox, a new parent, said the study opened her eyes and saddened her.
"A baby's death is one of the most traumatic things that can happen to parents. It tore their worlds apart,” she said. "They did the best they could with what they knew and what they had.”
Consequently, she said the Central Oklahoma Case Review Team, Community Action Team and Infant Safe Sleep Task Force recommend setting up a public awareness and education campaign to focus on keeping babies safer.