EVERY PARENT’S NIGHTMARE: Infant deaths on the rise in Peoria

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PEORIA, Ill. (WMBD) — A rising number of infants dying in Peoria has local health leaders worried, and they say people need to be educated on the matter.

In this special report, Matt Sheehan investigates what’s being done to address the problem.

There have been more infant deaths so far this year in Peoria than 2018 and 2019 combined.

Health experts tell WMBD it’s not a one-size-fits-all issue that can be easily fixed, but they’re hoping to provide education to parents and guardians so this problem can stop.

Peoria County Coroner Jamie Harwood is leading the charge to battle this deadly issue by partnering with health leaders around the area to try and provide the education parents need.

“No co-sleeping, sleep on safe surfaces,” Harwood said. “It’s very plain. No sleeping in bed with mom or with a sibling. This message needs to go beyond just mom and dad. Because grandparents, aunts, and uncles also care for those infants. So the message has to go everywhere.”

Just one of the tips Harwood has for new parents, but he said there’s much more to it.

“When I brought my infant home from the hospital he was in a bed by himself, no bumpers, no stuffed animals, no pillows, no pillowcases, no comforters,” Harwood said. “It was just a thin blanket from the hospital and on a flat surface on the back. That’s how kids should sleep, period.”

Dr. Channing Petrak — Medical Director of the Pediatric Resource Center — said she’s seen an uptick in infant deaths which requires immediate action by the medical community in Peoria.

“We want people to understand why they need to put their baby on their back, why they need to be in a safe environment, why the car seat isn’t a safe place to sleep,” Petrak said.

10 infant deaths have been reported in the City of Peoria this year alone, sparking major concern from health leaders. Harwood came to WMBD with this information because he said it needs to be shared.

“It’s of grave concern that we get a message to our public that number one, infants aren’t supposed to die, and how can we collectively as a group, as this coalition comes together work on preventative measures?” Harwood said.

Petrak said a baby’s airway is very small. Even smaller than the diameter of a pencil.

“So if they don’t have head control, and they’re inclined, some people will leave them in a car seat or a swing, if their head flops forward then they can cut off their airway and they’re not breathing,” she said. “If they are on a soft mattress or with a blanket or pillow, and their airway is occluded and their nose and mouth are really small, they don’t have the strength to move themselves away from the soft surface. So then they’re suffocated.”

She said what was once known as “SIDS,” or “Sudden Infant Death Syndrome,” is now being lumped in with “Sudden Unexplained Infant deaths” as a larger category.

She and Harwood said this isn’t the main problem they’re seeing now.

“Then there’s of course the asphyxiation deaths in that category as well,” Petrak said.

“99 percent of our infant deaths we’ve had this year are from co-sleeping,” Harwood said.

Petrak said many co-sleeping deaths happen because parents are just exhausted.

“It’s you’re tired because you have a new baby and you might be holding the baby thinking ‘I’ll hold them while they fall asleep,’ but then you fall asleep,” Petrak said.

So this caused Harwood, Petrak, and Battalion Chief Roland Tinley with the Peoria Fire Department to create a new coalition.

“Our goal is zero infant deaths,” Harwood said. “Our message is going to be very bold, our Coalition is to Stop Infant Deaths.” “We have a member of Peoria Police Department, Peoria County Sheriff’s Office, DCFS, the Pediatric Resource Center, the Coroner’s office, myself, and representatives from UnityPoint Methodist and OSF St. Francis Medical Center. 

“That’s one less very traumatic scene our providers have to respond to. And we’ve seen a lot this year,” Tinley said.

Tinley noticed the issue this year because of all the calls his crews have received.

“Anytime we have a patient that’s not breathing, infant or adult, we’re gonna be dispatching a fire company along with an ambulance, ambulance from AMT. To that scene to provide medical care,” he said.

Petrak said if your child can sleep in a safe environment, then you can sleep more soundly too knowing your kid is safe. She added it’s unsafe for infants to sleep in swings, car seats, or any inclined sleeper.

She said the safest way is just for infants to sleep on their backs.

For more information, head to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) website here.

The AAP reported more than 3,500 babies die every year suddenly or due to “accidental deaths from suffocation or strangulation.” The organization advises parents and guardians to have babies sleep on their backs for all sleep times (for naps and at night) until their first birthday.

“We know babies who sleep on their backs are much less likely to die of SIDS than babies who sleep on their stomachs or sides,” Rachel Y. Moon wrote in her AAP Policy report “The problem with the side position is that the baby can roll more easily onto the stomach. Some parents worry that babies will choke when on their backs, but the baby’s airway anatomy and the gag reflex will keep that from happening. Even babies with gastroesophageal reflux.”

The AAP also recommends newborns to be placed skin-to-skin with their mother as soon after birth as possible, at least for the first hour.

The following list includes all recommendations by the AAP:

  • Use a firm sleep surface. These surfaces need to meet the safety standards of the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).
  • Use caution when products claim to reduce the risk of SIDS. Don’t rely on home heart or breathing monitors to reduce the risk of SIDS. Talk with your pediatrician if you have questions about using these monitors.
  • Breastfeeding is recommended.
  • Infants should sleep in the parent’s room, close to the parents’ bed, but on a separate surface designed for infants, ideally for the first year.
  • Keep soft objects and loose bedding away from the sleep area.
  • Consider offering a pacifier at nap time and bedtime.
  • Avoid alcohol and illicit drug use during pregnancy and after birth.
  • Avoid overheating and head covering in infants.
  • Pregnant women should obtain regular prenatal care.
  • Infants should be immunized in accordance with recommendations of the AAP and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  • Avoid the use of commercial devices that are inconsistent with safe sleep recommendations.
  • Do not use home cardiorespiratory monitors as a strategy to reduce the risk of SIDS.
  • Supervised, awake tummy time is recommended to facilitate development and to minimize the development of positional plagiocephaly.
  • Health care professionals, staff in newborn nurseries and NICUs, and child care providers should endorse and model the SIDS risk-reduction recommendations from birth.
  • Media and manufacturers should follow safe sleep guidelines in their messaging and advertising.
  • Continue the “Safe to Sleep” campaign, focusing on ways to reduce the risk of all sleep-related infant deaths, including SIDS, suffocation, and other unintentional deaths. Pediatricians and other primary care providers should actively participate in this campaign.

The following is what the AAP says SIDS is not:

  • SIDS is not the same as suffocation and is not caused by suffocation.
  • SIDS is not caused by vaccines, immunizations, or shots.
  • SIDS is not contagious.
  • SIDS is not the result of neglect or child abuse.
  • SIDS is not caused by cribs.
  • SIDS is not caused by vomiting or choking.
  • SIDS is not completely preventable, but there are ways to reduce the risk.

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