Babies dying in unsafe sleep settings, despite cribs, study finds

WASHINGTON - Babies are dying in places where they should never be laid down to sleep, despite the presence of cribs in their homes, new research presented at a gathering of the nation's pediatricians shows.

A team from the University of New Mexico and the state's Medical Investigator's office reviewed information on 91 children under age 1 who died in the state between 2006 and 2010.

Jessica Black, a third-year student at the medical school and lead author of the study, was scheduled to present the findings Monday at the American Academy of Pediatrics' national meeting in Boston.

Included in the study were 59 babies whose deaths were classified as Sudden Infant Death Syndrome or Sudden Unexplained Infant Death and 28 for whom the cause of death was undetermined.

New Mexico has a statewide medical examiner system and child death review panel that investigates all infant deaths not attributed to a specific disease or condition.

A 2007 Scripps Howard News Service review of practices surrounding infant deaths found that jurisdictions that conduct full sudden infant death investigations, including an autopsy and probe of the scene, are much more likely to find that such deaths are the result of unsafe sleep practices and suffocation. (See "Saving Babies,"

The New Mexico researchers found that 71 percent of the infants who died mysteriously had been found on an unsafe sleep surface, 50 percent were sharing a sleep surface with someone else and 52 percent were in sleep position other than the back.

Among the infants found in an unsafe place, 57 percent were in homes that had a baby crib. And in 30 percent of those homes, the crib was being used for another purpose.

"These numbers track the conditions we've seen nationally and, until lately, around Pittsburgh,'' said Judy Bannon, founder of Cribs for Kids, a Pittsburgh-based national network dedicated to safe sleep education for new parents. It also provides cribs to families that lack a safe place for their infant to sleep.

"The cribs are used for storage or filled with stuffed animals while baby sleeps in Mom and Dad's bed. Or the crib is too big to keep Mom near the baby. Lately, we're seeing a number of problems arising from so many recalls of unsafe cribs, which many young parents find confusing and frightening."

Bannon and other advocates were instrumental in passage of a Pennsylvania law last year that requires all new mothers to watch a video on infant safe sleep practices and then sign a form verifying they've watched it.

A national campaign for a safer infant sleep environment was started in the mid-1990s and continues today. But that program emphasized "Back to Sleep" over other aspects of baby sleep surroundings in a bid to reduce the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

Many experts estimate that as many as 50 to 80 percent of more than 4,500 sudden unexpected infant deaths each year could be prevented if babies were placed in a safe spot and position every time they're laid down to sleep.

"Despite the success of sleeping awareness campaigns, many of the remaining SIDS cases involve prone (face down) sleeping and unsafe sleeping environments, such as bed sharing and infants being put to sleep outside of a crib or bassinet,'' Black said, adding that continued education efforts are needed to prevent such deaths.

"The message that baby has to sleep alone in a safe place is just as important as there being a crib in the house,'' Bannon said.

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