Joe Edwards, Commander of the Child Death Investigation Task Force
Infants need to sleep alone in a safe crib and on their backs, and law enforcement is now working with child welfare advocates to make sure parents know it — especially in southern Illinois.
October is Safe Sleep Awareness Month, so the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services and Columbia Police Chief Joseph Edwards announced a regional campaign Tuesday to promote parental education about safe sleeping for infants and small children.
Southern Illinois has double the ratio of co-sleeping deaths of northern Illinois and Cook County. Edwards said the Southern Illinois Child Death Investigation Task Force, which he leads, has seen 127 infant deaths in four years, with 81 percent due to co-sleeping: parents allowing infants and small children to sleep in bed with them.
In northern Illinois and Cook County, there have been 1.25-1.27 sleep-related deaths per 100,000 children under age 5. In central Illinois, the ratio is 3.28 per 100,000, and in southern Illinois it is 3.64 per 100,000.
127 Infant deaths in four years in southern Illinois
In addition, Edwards said, they believe the deaths are severely under-reported; the laws requiring doctors, hospitals and coroners to report all unexplained infant deaths to the DCFS hotline are new, and not all medical and law enforcement personnel are following them yet.
“My staff and I feel that one child’s death is too many,” said George Sheldon, acting director of DCFS. “But this number is even harder to comprehend when you know each death was preventable.”
Every parent is instructed as to safe sleeping at the hospital when an infant is born, Edwards said. It is now law in Illinois to inform them that babies should be placed on their backs in a safe crib with a firm mattress, with no blankets, pillows or stuffed animals that might provide a suffocation hazard. They should never be placed in an adult bed or with an adult, he said.
“We will hold those accountable that do things that harm the children of this state,” he said.
A lot of co-sleeping deaths involve an adult who is under the influence of drugs or alcohol and is unaware that they have shifted into a position that could harm the child, he said. “Or they just don’t use common sense,” he said.
They’re infants; they can’t yell out for help. Their entire environment is based on what the caregiver gives them.
Joseph Edwards, commander of the Southern Illinois Child Death Investigation Task Force
Sometimes it’s as simple as the baby’s face pressed too close to a pillow or a too-soft mattress, or wedged between a parent’s body and the headboard. “They’re infants; they can’t yell out for help,” he said. “Their entire environment is based on what the caregiver gives them.”
Many new parents might be advised by older relatives that co-sleeping is fine, because a previous generation did it, he said. But he said parents need to listen to the experts.
“We learn from the mistakes in the past,” he said. “We have a lot of caregivers who remember, ‘this is how I was raised,’ but we know better now... Years ago, nobody had seat belts in the car. Then we learned that seat belts save lives.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all babies up to 1 year old be placed on their backs with nothing else in the crib, and that sleeper suits are preferable to blankets because of the dangers of suffocation. SIDS, or Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, is the leading cause of death for infants between 1 and 12 months of age. AAP policy agrees that adult sleeping surfaces are never safe for an infant to sleep, so if the parent wishes to have the child in the same room, the baby still should be in a crib, never in the same bed.
The AAP also strongly encourages parents to discuss safe sleeping with relatives and other caregivers, since many cases of SIDS occur when the infant is left with a different caregiver who then places the baby on his stomach or side. A child who is used to to sleeping on his back and is then placed on his stomach is 18 times more likely to die of SIDS, according to AAP.
Edwards said since all parents are informed at the hospital that co-sleeping can cause infant death, they will begin to hold parents and caregivers accountable, including criminal charges, when infants are harmed. That’s one reason for the publicity push to educate parents, he said; new parents can be overwhelmed and emotional when they are preparing to leave the hospital and might not remember that they were informed about co-sleeping.
“You have a million things on your mind,” he said. “That’s why we are putting out the literature... the safest environment for your baby is a crib that is empty, with no pillows or stuffed animals, alone and on their back.”
Edwards said when he agreed to lead the Child Death Investigation Task Force for southern Illinois, he thought it might be one or two calls a month. Instead, he said, he’s going out on call after call, the majority of which are infant deaths caused by co-sleeping.
“I beg and plead with the public, if you can’t afford a good crib, we will find a way to help you,” he said. “It’s at a point where it has to stop. There are just too many.”