Deb Bridges: Share a room, but not a bed

After receiving the exciting news confirming a pregnancy comes the undeniable thrill about decorating a nursery. Parents are lured by the decorative bedding in stores and online, filling the crib with blankets, bumpers, baby pillows and stuffed animals.

Sadly, these adorable but unnecessary accessories can create a suffocation hazard for your infant.

Another hazard can be the unsafe sleeping practices of co-sleeping or bed-sharing. An afternoon nap on the couch can turn deadly and lead to life-long heartbreak for new parents. As a member of the county’s Child Fatality Review Team, I’ve dealt with many of these cases, and my heart sinks every time I get this sort of call.

The good news is these deaths are 100 percent preventable.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), more than 3,500 babies in the United States die suddenly and unexpectedly every year. These are due to accidental deaths from Sudden Unexpected Infant Death (SUID) or suffocation or strangulation associated with co-sleeping or unsafe bedding for infants.

Dr. Bill Koenig, a local pediatrician, says he attempts to address co-sleeping with new parents. Parents often say they are light sleepers and that their baby wakes them up easily. Dr. Koenig contends that those are naive beliefs. He feels that eventually exhaustion will play a role and will lead a parent to sleep on a couch or pull an infant into bed with them.

Guest Writer

Guest writer Deb Bridges is the victim services director for Yamhill County. She holds a journalism degree from Indiana University. She lives in the rural Dundee area with her husband, John, and has two daughters, Isabel and Chloe.

“Parents believe that it will never be a problem,” says Koenig. “There is nothing more tragic than a parent waking up to find their infant dead and wedged in their arms or lying underneath them.”

In addition to his pediatric practice, Dr. Koenig is the Yamhill County Health Officer and one of the Yamhill County Medical Examiners who gets called when an infant dies. No parent thinks those dangers will ever befall them.

Sadly, that is not the case. According to the Oregon Public Health Assessment Tool, an infant in Yamhill County has died every year for the past 15 years as a result of unsafe sleeping conditions.

In Oregon, every county is mandated through Oregon Revised Statutes 418.747 to review unexpected child deaths for anyone under age 18. Local teams review suicides, drownings, SUIDs, car crashes, and accidental strangulation and other causes of death. The district attorney in each county is responsible for a multi-disciplinary team made up of law enforcement, medical examiners, child protective service workers, health departments, schools and representatives of Juliette’s House.

Some childhood tragedies are pure accidents. But, many can be prevented. “Child fatality cases, and especially cases of suffocation from co-sleeping, are the worst cases we review,” says Yamhill County District Attorney Brad Berry. “We know the trauma families go through as a result of this preventable death. We want people to understand the risks of un-safe sleeping conditions.”

National organizations like the March of Dimes and the AAP offer excellent advice on safe sleeping practices. Outlined in the AAP’s “SIDS and Other Sleep-Related Infant Deaths: Updated 2016 Recommendations for a Safe Infant Sleeping Environment,” are valuable guidelines for safe sleeping recommendations. They include: Placing infants on their backs to sleep; using a firm sleep surface; room sharing without bed sharing; avoiding exposure to smoke, alcohol and illicit drugs; breastfeeding; routine immunization and using a pacifier.

The AAP also supports skin-to-skin care for newborn infants; addresses the use of bedside and in-bed sleepers; and has additional recommendations on how to create a safe sleep environment. A more comprehensive list can be found at AAP.org.

According to the March of Dimes, the safest place for your baby to sleep is in their own bassinet or crib placed close to your bed. They identify a list of items that can put infants at risk. Those include: getting trapped by the bed’s frame, headboard or footboard; getting stuck between the bed and the wall, furniture or other objects; falling off the bed; being suffocated by pillows, blankets or quilts from lying facedown; having another person roll on top of the infant. More about the March of Dimes recommendations can be found at marchofdimes.org.

New parents should have candid conversations with their primary care physicians about what they can do to reduce sleep-related risks for their infants. It’s my hope parents will listen to the recommendations of their physicians and make changes if necessary based on the AAP guidelines.

Advocates from the District Attorney’s Office respond with law enforcement on these deaths, to give assistance to the grieving parents. They are specially trained to deal with people in trauma and crisis, and to connect the families to grief counseling. But before it happens, we need to do whatever we can to spare parents from this tragedy.