Bed-Sharing Is Cited in Deaths; Spike in City Laid to Poor Economy Shifting Families' Living Conditions

Article excerpt

St. Louis - The police detective sees the same tragedy again and again, typically in the dark hours of the night.

Tired mothers or fathers place a baby on a bed or couch with them, or nestle the baby on their chest, and then fall asleep. As they sleep the baby tangles in the bedding, or rolls facedown into a mattress, or gets wedged under an adult or sibling also in the bed.

They wake to find their baby blue and lifeless.

"I respond right away to these calls, and what I see are broken- up families. Torn-up people," said Tonya Tanksley, a detective in the St. Louis Police Department's child abuse unit. "And unfortunately, most of the time, when we go into the properties, we see a crib, and the crib is filled with dirty clothes or other things - everything but the baby."

Since the start of this year, the St. Louis Medical Examiner's Office has recorded six infant deaths determined or suspected to be caused by sharing a bed or couch. In 2011, the office recorded seven such deaths for the whole year.

The spike in what health experts consider preventable accidental deaths has led some to tie it to the high foreclosure and eviction rates in a poor economy. It has also prompted the St. Louis Department of Health to issue a public safety warning of the elevated risk of suffocation and sudden infant death syndrome - or SIDS - from sharing a bed or a couch with a baby.

Babies should always sleep alone, on their backs, in a crib, the health advisory states.

"Parents should never allow a toddler or infant to sleep in an adult's bed, a chair or a sofa, even if the adult is present," said Interim City Health Director Pamela Walker.

Walker said she became aware of the problem after sitting in a city child fatality review session on another matter. She was shocked when she saw the agenda had numerous infant deaths all related to bed-sharing.

"I just don't think people understand the risks that they're taking with their babies," she said. "You love them so much, and you cuddle and you nurse and you doze off. Unless someone puts it in your face, and unless doctors tell you what a risk it is, people do it."

ECONOMIC FACTORS

Tanksley believes the spike in St. Louis this year is tied to the poor economy and the large displacement of families because of foreclosures and evictions. She said the sudden displacements force families to move in with relatives or friends, where they typically share a bedroom. In some cases, if cribs are available they are used to store items from a move.

When she investigates a sleep death, Tanksley commonly finds whole families sharing beds. Half of the deaths so far this year in the city involved bed-sharing with a parent and also siblings, according to the medical examiner's office.

Dr. James Kemp, a pediatrician who is co-director of sleep medicine at St. Louis Children's Hospital and a leading researcher in how sleep environment is linked to sudden unexpected infant death, said Tanksley's theory on economic displacement fell in line with current research.

"One of the factors that leads to bed-sharing is a recent move by the mother," he said.

Officials with St. Louis County, where there has also been a high number of foreclosures, report no such spike. There have been two bed-sharing fatalities since the start of the year.

State officials who compile child fatality data said it was unclear whether such fatalities had been increasing statewide with the weak economy. …