Unsafe sleep practices are behind most infant deaths in Minnesota

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All but a few of the sudden unexpected infant deaths in Minnesota last year may have been caused by "unsafe sleeping environments," the state's health department has found.

The Minnesota Department of Health analyzed 56 sudden infant deaths in 2014 and found 52 of them were in unsafe sleeping situations when they died – about half of them sharing a bed, sofa or recliner with another person.

The other half were in an unsafe position – such as on their side or stomach – had loose objects around them like pillows, blankets or toys, or were not placed on a firm surface to sleep, such as a crib mattress.

MDH is urging parents, hospitals and child-care providers to reduce the risk of sleep-related infant deaths, which are most commonly caused in the U.S. by accidental suffocation and strangulation in bed.

"We can save dozens of infants a year by supporting communities, retailers, parents, grandparents, and caregivers in their efforts to have infants sleep alone on their backs in safety-approved cribs free of pillows and blankets," health commissioner Dr. Ed Ehlinger said.

Among the suggestions made by the department are:

  • Dressing babies for the temperature and not covering them with a blanket, to reduce suffocation risks.
  • Removing soft items such as blankets, pillows, crib bumpers and toys from their crib.
  • Sleeping them separately from other children and adults.
  • Not letting them sleep on beds, couches or recliners.

"These prevention measures save lives," DHS Inspector General Jerry Kerber commented, saying there had been a fall in infant deaths in licensed child care since it introduced safe sleep practices for child care providers.

The report said that the rate of sudden infant death for American Indian babies and black babies is four and two times as high as for white babies, respectively.

MDH said that this shows the impact social and economic factors can have on infant death rates, with the health, income and racial inequalities present in Minnesota "preventing some babies from having the opportunities for a healthy start that includes a safe sleeping environment."

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