Earlier this summer, a Fort Worth couple awoke horrified to discover their 4-month-old son, lying in bed with them, had died while they slept.
So far this year, at least 14 children in Tarrant County have died while sleeping in a bed with another child or with one or more adults. Statewide, at least 175 children have died while bed sharing, surpassing the 2011 record, officials say.
Dallas County has seen at least 18 bed-sharing-related infant deaths so far this year. Johnson County has seen two, and Parker and Denton counties have each reported one.
Whether to promote breast feeding and bonding or to provide comfort, some parents choose to share their beds with their babies. But Tarrant County and state child advocates have recently launched public education campaigns encouraging parents to consider placing their infants in their own cribs to avoid the risk of accidental suffocation.
“I think a lot of folks don’t realize how high the numbers are of children that are dying where sharing the bed with an adult or another child was a factor. Your baby needs his or her own place to sleep. A grown-up bed is not made for babies,” said Marissa Gonzales, a spokeswoman for Child Protective Services. “The safest place is where they are not going to get tangled in anything, get smothered by anything or risk being rolled over on.”
In late June, the state launched a $100,000 online, television and radio and social media campaign aimed at educating parents and caregivers about Texas’ high number of child deaths related to bed-sharing.
The concern is shared by local child advocates as well. The Fort Worth Safe Communities Coalition, a collaboration of more than 50 Fort Worth organizations working to address the leading causes of injury and accidental death in the county, is also launching its own public education campaign this month in Tarrant County.
“A lot of these deaths are preventable. Educating folks on what the safest sleep environments are will hopefully prevent future deaths,” said Deborah Krauser, co-chairwoman of Fort Worth Safe Communities Coalition.
The American Academy of Pediatric’s recommendations for safe sleeping include placing babies on their back in a safe sleeping environment, which is a firm surface free of pillows, fluffy blankets or toys.
“Its very passionate topic. There are people that feel very strongly about breast feeding and bed sharing. The research I’ve read shows the risk of suffocation doesn’t outweigh the benefit of prolonged breast feeding,” Krauser said. “We are not out there to demand everyone not sleep with their babies. If you do bed-share, there is an increased risk. You just have to give them all the information.”
A recently published review of 8,207 infant deaths reported by 24 states from 2004 to 2012 to the National Center for the Review and Prevention of Child Deaths found that 69 percent of the babies were bed-sharing at the time of their death.
While the “Back to Sleep” campaign has helped reduce the number of sudden infant deaths by more than 50 percent, children are still accidentally dying in unsafe sleep environments, said Lindsey Dula, Alliance for Children’s program service director.
“That campaign was a huge paradigm shift on how parents were making sure their kids went to bed. What it didn’t stress is where you were putting the baby to bed,” Dula said.
“Babies are being put to sleep on surfaces that aren’t safe for them, like adult beds, couches and ottomans,” she said. “You could be putting them on their back in the middle of an adult bed on a comforter and surrounded by pillows. When a baby turns or flips or gets in position where they can’t move their head, that is where we see these preventable child fatalities.”
Becky Law, who manages the Lactation Department and childbirth education at Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital Fort Worth, said she isn’t surprised when exhausted new parents complain to her that their babies are constantly waking up. While parents say they realize the crib or bassinet is the preferred choice, Law said they also find that their baby sleeps more soundly when he or she is being held.
“For me to tell them not to is not helping them. They are going to do it anyway because they are not getting any sleep,” Law said. “I’d rather give them information on a safer way to do it than not to do it all.”
Those tips include urging parents not to sleep with a baby on a couch where the child could fall between the cushions, or maybe having a breastfeeding mom sleep with the baby on a firm bed while the dad sleeps in another room.
Dula said breast-feeding moms can still form “an amazing attachment” with their babies even if they aren’t sharing a bed.
“You are going to get up in the middle of the night and pick up your baby and breast-feed them and then you are going to put the baby back down in its crib and you are going to go back to your bed,” Dula said.
Sometimes financial hardship could be a factor on why a family doesn’t have a separate place for a child to sleep. By partnering with local churches and nonprofit groups, the Fort Worth Safe Communities Coalition plans to provide a free pack-and-play to low-income pregnant women who attend a five-month educational program, which would include information on prenatal health, breast feeding and child care.
“If we can decrease the number of fatalities related to unsafe sleeping conditions by just one, I’d say this is worth it,” Dula said.