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As Co-Sleeping Deaths Mount in Milwaukee, Officials Want Attention on Premature Births

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Milwaukee’s medical examiner this week is investigating another suspected co-sleeping death, though officials want more attention paid to a bigger problem in the city - premature births.

In the latest incident, authorities say the 3-month-old baby was sharing a bed with his mother and a sibling. Reports say it would be the 18th death this year of a Milwaukee County child due to unsafe sleep conditions.

Health officials say while co-sleeping deaths get a lot of attention in the press, it’s not the most prevalent cause of infant mortality in Milwaukee.

“For every one infant that we hear about that’s dying in an unsafe sleep environment, there are four that are dying due to complications of prematurity,” says Jessica Gathirimu, director of Family and Community Health at the Milwaukee Health Department. “We’re really trying to change the narrative and bring attention to these deaths due to prematurity that folks don’t really hear about."

Gathirimu says the city has had programs for many years that help women who are pregnant have healthy babies. Now, she says the focus needs to expand to address the wide range of factors that can impact birth outcomes.

“There’s so many things, such as unemployment and neighborhood quality and housing and crime, access to health care, and then of course, some individual behaviors as well. All of these things affect infant mortality and therefore everyone has a role to play,” Gathirimu says.

Data show race is also a factor in birth outcomes, according to Emmanuel Ngui, an assistant professor of community and behavioral health at UWM’s Zilber School of Public Health. He says infant mortality is almost three times higher for blacks than for whites.

“And that’s a pattern that has held consistently for a number of years in Milwaukee,” Ngui says.

Ngui says such racial disparities exist in most places, but are particularly pronounced here. And while Wisconsin’s white babies fare better, Ngui says they also have worse outcomes than infants in other states.

“That tells you there’s something about the conditions of women of child-bearing age in Wisconsin that are not conducive to very good outcomes,” Ngui says.

He says a number factors may be at play, including when pregnant women here start getting pre-natal care. Ngui also says providers in Wisconsin need to pay more attention to the health of women before becoming pregnant and between pregnancies.

“Those are periods that have been shown to be more important in terms of changing the overall trajectory of the pregnancies of women,” Ngui says.

Developing healthy girls who eventually will have healthy babies is one focus of Milwaukee Lifecourse, a partnership between the city, the United Way of Greater Milwaukee, health clinics and many other stakeholders.

The United Way’s Nicole Angresano says Lifecourse is working to make sure women have access to quality medical care at all points in their lives. Leaders are also spreading the message to other sectors that can impact how people live, including the faith community.

“When people are aligned with or attached to a particular place of worship or a particular faith leader, we know that that faith leader and that faith community can have positive outcomes on a host of health and social issues,” Angresano says.

Angresano says another Lifecourse initiative is working to expand urban gardens so more low-income women have access to healthy food while they’re pregnant.

“We’re really taking an approach that no one strategy or no one program is going to solve this issue,” Angresano says.

Jessica Gathirimu at the Milwaukee Health Department says despite the various initiatives here to prevent infant deaths, including those due to co-sleeping, we may not see the data nudge much anytime soon.

“As we just sort of chip away at one intervention at a time, really we’re only going to see these small movements. But hopefully, as we bring more people to the table and more people start chipping away, we will begin to see that needle move,” Gathirimu says.

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