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
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. …