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Sudden deaths still high among newborns despite safe sleep campaigns

Despite overall improvements in sudden unexpected infant deaths over the last few decades, rates among newborns have not declined.
/ Source: TODAY

Like most new parents, 3-week-old Charlie Hanke’s family was exhausted. To give Charlie’s mom a break, his dad, Dr. Samuel Hanke scooped up the little boy and brought him over to the couch. Hanke laid down with the infant on his chest, facing belly down.

“I was watching TV and I nodded off to sleep,” Hanke said. “When I woke up, Charlie was gone.”

In those brief minutes Sam Hanke had slept, his son died from sudden unexpected infant death, or SUID. Even though he was a practicing pediatrician, Hanke had never heard that chest-to-chest positioning of a baby raised the risk of SUID. “The only reason I share this story and relive the tragedy is to try to help people make some sense of the numbers,” he said.

Baby Charlie became part of the distressing statistics on SUID in newborns. A new study finds rates from SUID among newborns haven't improved despite campaigns promoting safe sleep practices. Researchers determined that while the rates of SUID had improved in babies under a year old between 1995 and 2014, they had not declined in newborns, according to the report published Wednesday in The Journal of Pediatrics.

Between 1995 and 2014, 8,869 babies died of SUID in the first month of life — 2,593 of those deaths were in babies 6 days old and younger. Even more tragic: 1,317 babies died in the first day of life, while 625 died in the first hour.

Why are newborns dying?

A practice instituted in hospitals to help moms and babies bond may be contributing to the continued high rate of death in newborns, said the study's lead author, Dr. Joel Bass, chairman of the department of pediatrics at Newton-Wellesley Hospital and a professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School.

Hospitals encourage moms to put their newborns up against their chests, because “in the first hour or two, it helps with temperature and glucose regulation in the infant,” Bass said. “Babies are placed on the mother’s chest so the baby receives the warmth of the mother and maybe experiences a decrease in stress, too.”

It’s OK to do that “in the early hours of life,” Bass said, providing that it’s “coupled with close observation of the mother and newborn by staff."

The problem is that some centers promote it throughout the hospital stay and families may continue with it at home after discharge, when it has not been shown to be beneficial, Bass said.

Further, Bass said, “the prone position may be harmful as it contradicts NIH and American Academy of Pediatrics advice.”

The rate of death among newborns wasn’t the only bad news in the study.

When researchers looked at the overall stats, they discovered that even though the number of SUID deaths in babies under a year declined up until 2002, things leveled out after that. Equally disturbing was a finding that the percentage of deaths due to unsafe sleep practices had become increasingly common during the course of the study.

Another study published this week in Pediatrics found the rates of babies dying from SUID vary from state to state. Researchers examined data from the approximately 3,500 babies who die each year from the condition.

States with the biggest declines in deaths from SUID:

  • California
  • Colorado
  • District of Columbia
  • Florida
  • Kansas
  • Missouri
  • New York
  • Oregon
  • Washington
  • Wisconsin

States with the highest rates of deaths from SUID:

  • Alaska
  • Arkansas
  • Alabama
  • Kentucky
  • Louisiana

As Sam Hanke and his wife talked to other parents, they realized many others had lost children in the same way. The couple decided they could find some meaning in their son’s death if they made it their mission to educate the public about the dangers of the chest-to-chest position.

They founded Charlie’s Kids Foundation in 2011, on the day that would have been Charlie’s birthday, hoping to help spread the word about safe sleep practices.

Still, it doesn't take the pain away.

"There is nothing I wouldn’t do to have another minute with him and to change what happened that night, Hanke said. "If by doing this we save one baby’s life, it will be worth it."