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Sleep-related infant deaths spike across the Baltimore region, officials stress safe sleep practices

Dominique Maria Bonessi
Baltimore City Health Department.

Health officials are alerting the public to a tragic trend across both Baltimore City and the surrounding county: a dramatic increase in sleep-related infant deaths.

Officials told reporters during a press conference Tuesday that 18 infants have died in their sleep since the beginning of December 2022.

Inside that figure, 11 of those deaths were Baltimore City residents and the remaining seven were in the county.

To put that into perspective, there were 16 sleep-related deaths throughout the entirety of 2021, city data shows.

There are some racial disparities too: nine of the infants who died in Baltimore City were African American, one was Latinx, and one was white.

Unsafe sleeping practices were a common element in all of the deaths.

“Always place infants on their backs to sleep, and use a firm sleep mattress such as a crib or bassinet,” instructed Baltimore City Health Commissioner Dr. Letitia Dzirasa, a pediatrician by training. “Avoid placing soft objects such as pillows or blankets in the sleep area, and make sure that the sleep area is free of any potential hazards such as cords or toys.”

Smoke is also a huge factor in keeping infants alive.

“Exposure to tobacco smoke is also a contributor to sleep related deaths, as secondhand smoke is known to create respiratory issues among infants,” Dzirasa said. “And finally, COVID-19 and RSV, like secondhand smoke, may exacerbate breathing difficulties in infants and can lead to sleep-related deaths.

She said seven of the infants that died had reportedly experienced breathing problems in the 72 hours before their deaths. Some of them did have RSV.

Rebecca Dineen, assistant health commissioner for the city’s Bureau of Maternal and Child Health, wants parents to remember what she calls the ABCDs for preventing sleep-related infant death: babies should be alone, on their back, in a crib, and individuals should not smoke around the child.

Tuesday’s press conference featured city agencies and representatives from the B’more for Healthy Babies Coalition, a city-led initiative that works with agencies across the state to reduce sleep-related infant deaths.

Officials admitted that they don’t know what exactly caused this recent spike and that they are still investigating the issue. Dzirasa did admit there is a “linkage” between the deaths and RSV. She also acknowledged that the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the healthy babies coalition’s education services and that there’s a “disconnect” with families who have become isolated from healthcare services.

“I think one of the things that you see out in the media and on the internet is it's okay to have family beds, and to have family sleeping [together],” said Dr. Robert Atlas, the chair of obstetrics and gynecology at Mercy Medical Center. “But again, the data doesn't prove that. We know that having co- sleeping in unsafe environments is leading to infant death.”

Dzirasa recalled tough, sleepless nights with her own baby and the temptation to keep the baby with her in bed, but that is a situation in which an infant can easily suffocate.

The coalition and the City of Baltimore are coordinating with state officials to see if this is part of a larger pattern around Maryland.

About 3,500 infants die of sleep-related infant deaths each year, a number that has stagnated in the 2000’s after sharp declines in the 1990’s, according to estimates from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Baltimore City had 27 infant deaths in 2007 that declined down to a low of 7 in 2017, according to department data.

Dzirasa and local officials are desperate to get those numbers back down. “These deaths are preventable. Let's work together to ensure the safety of our youngest, most vulnerable residents.”

For resources on sleep-related infant death and assistance with family health needs, you can visit:

Home | BHB Website (healthybabiesbaltimore.com)

Health Care Access Maryland – Making Maryland a Better Place to Live.

Emily is a general assignment news reporter for WYPR.
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