September is Infant Mortality Awareness Month and across the United States, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) is the leading cause of death for healthy infants from one month to one year. In Baltimore the disparity of infant deaths between African-American and Caucasian babies is at an alarmingly high rate. That is why the Baltimore City Health Department, in partnership with key community, medical, and city agencies, has launched the B’more for Healthy Babies Campaign.

Gena O’Keefe, director of healthy Community Initiatives at the Family League of Baltimore, one of the campaign partners, said that 27 infants died in Baltimore City last year due to unsafe sleeping conditions. “The main cause of those deaths is preventable,” said O’Keefe. “This campaign is about sharing the responsibility for improving birth outcomes across Baltimore City.”

One arm of the initiative is an aggressive grass roots campaign in Patterson Park North and East, Upton/Druid Heights, and Greenmount East to increase community involvement. Nonprofits in these neighborhoods will receive funding and training to spread the word about safe sleeping for infants in the city. New mothers will also view a video on safe sleeping before being discharged from any one of the city’s birthing hospitals.

O’Keefe advises parents and caregivers to follow the ABCs of safe sleeping for an infant – alone, on their back, and in a crib. Babies should sleep that way throughout their first year, she advises, to help lower the risks of a preventable death.
“If you take all other risk factors away, a baby sleeping on its tummy is three times more likely to die during sleep than a baby sleeping on its back,” said O’Keefe. Though this might be a comfortable position for a baby that allows them to sleep more deeply, it also increases chances that an infant might choke and be unable to get an adequate air supply to developing lungs.

“National data in sleep position studies shows that African Americans have a higher incidence of stomach sleeping for infants,” said Stephanie Regenold, senior advisor for the Babies born Healthy Initiative in BCHD. “It’s roughly double the incidence of stomach sleeping amongst Caucasians, so that’s definitely something that contributes to the disparity that we see, especially in Baltimore City,” she said.

Regenold and O’Keefe both agree that traditional and historical knowledge about infant sleeping habits could be a cultural thing passed down through generations from well meaning grandparents, aunts, uncles, and other family members and caregivers.

“I compare it to seatbelt use,” said O’Keefe. “A lot of our parents and grandparents didn’t use car seats and seatbelts. However, over time there was real data to support how seatbelts and car seats prevented injury and death. And that’s the same with babies sleeping on their backs.”

“We can’t say that we could have prevented all [27 sleep related deaths] of them, but we can say that we could have prevented most of them,” said Regenold, who advises parents to do their best to lower the risk factors when it comes to infant mortality. “For most of the sleep related deaths that we see, there was a crib in the house. It wasn’t being used. What we see overwhelmingly in Baltimore are babies who are bed sharing, sometimes with multiple people like a parent and a sibling,” she said. To address this issue, income-eligible families can contact the health department for information and resources that can assist them in obtaining a crib.

O’Keefe said the primary focus of the campaign is a behavioral change to help turn the tide of what city health officials are calling a public health crisis. “We are working on neighborhood outreach and reaching a younger audience through various methods like social marketing and Facebook. We hope that the campaign touches people in a different way by hearing real stories from real people. This will work as long as the different city agencies and hospitals are working together and giving people the same message. And we’re doing that.” she said.