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Co-Sleeping Deaths Persist in Milwaukee

Police in Milwaukee are investigating yet another possible co-sleeping death, possibly the city's 16th this year.

Public health officials and others have been trying for years to discourage unsafe sleep environments. But some involved say more needs to be done to reduce the city’s overall number of infant deaths.

Back in 2011, the city launched a controversial ad campaign that included startling images of babies in beds next to butcher knives. It was meant to raise awareness that sharing a bed with a baby is dangerous, and that infants should be placed on their backs in cribs to sleep. There have been other efforts in recent years, but the number of deaths here from unsafe sleep environments remains constant.

“I think people think initially that this will be easy to fix,” says Dr. Geoffrey Swain, medical director for the city Health Department and professor of family medicine at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health. “But these are habits that people have been into for generations and it’s difficult to change people’s behaviors, so we’re in this for the long run.”

He says even though some parents advocate for bed sharing as a way to bond with their babies, the consensus in the medical community is that the practice is dangerous. But Swain says the message is not reaching everyone.

"People believe that it's safe to bring their children into bed with them. But it's not," says Dr. Geoffrey Swain.

The Numbers

For at least five years, the city of Milwaukee has recorded around 15 infant deaths annually resulting from unsafe sleep environments. In a majority of the cases, the babies suffocated on soft objects, such as pillows or blankets.

A small number of the deaths – about 3 of the 15 – are linked to the adult’s use of alcohol or drugs.

A bill circulating in the Legislature aims to deter that behavior, by making it a felony to harm or kill an infant by co-sleeping while intoxicated.

Jackie Sevallius hopes her efforts will also serve as a deterrent. She’s a nurse in the neo-natal intensive care unit at Wheaton Franciscan’s St. Joseph campus in Milwaukee. Sevallius lectures new parents before they leave and gives them tools to keep their babies safe.

“We offer pack ‘n plays. We offer a tight fitting crib sheet for that pack ‘n play. We offer a swaddle sack that we send them home with – all of the items that they need for a safe sleep environment. I tell my parents, put that baby in your room. That’s fine. Room sharing is great. Bed sharing is not,” Sevallius says.

Sevallius says she’s sympathetic to parents who are exhausted or have babies who won’t sleep at night, but she can’t understand why some continue to risk co-sleeping. She says some of the deaths have occurred in homes, or even the same rooms, where a crib or a pack ‘n play sat unused.

“I’m frustrated as a nurse caring for people in the hospital, teaching them everything that I feel they need to know about safe sleep, why it continues to be a problem in our community,” Sevallius says.

This image was part of a controversial ad campaign in 2011 to fight co-sleeping deaths in Milwaukee

A Larger Problem

Dr. Goeffry Swain, the city’s medical director, says co-sleeping deaths are actually a small part of the much larger problem of infant mortality in Milwaukee. Nearly 10 of every 1000 babies born die before their first birthday, most due to prematurity.

“Most of them are dying in the hospital. You never hear about them. Media never hears about them,” Swain says. “Medical examiner’s not called, they die in the hospital, you don’t need the ME, and so it never hits the media. So what the public is hearing, is they’re hearing all about these unsafe sleep deaths, they’re not hearing about four times as many babies that are dying of prematurity. So we get this skewed perception about what causes babies to die.”

Swain says the infant mortality rate here is highest among black babies. It’s more than triple the rate for white infants. The encouraging news, Swain says, is that most of the deaths are preventable.

He says leaders must continue highlighting the issue of safe sleeping, but also pay attention to women’s health. According to Swain, more pregnant women here need early and regular prenatal care and to better manage chronic diseases, such as diabetes.

Plus, he says a woman’s health over her lifetime can affect her ability to carry a baby to term, so making sure girls have regular checkups could improve the health of future generations.

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