Sleep-Related Infant Death on the Rise in Illinois: Expert

It’s the middle of the night; your infant child is hungry, and you’re exhausted. So you bring your baby into your bed to feed him there, and then you both drift back to sleep.

Jessica Gordon of Plainfield did just that in the middle of a September night in 2011 – nursing her 10-week-old son Payton in her bed and falling asleep as he ate.

“He always slept in his bassinet, and just that one time is all that it took,” said Gordon.

She woke up to find Payton’s face pressed to her chest, his lips blue. She panicked and called 911. Payton died that night of accidental suffocation.

Incidents like Gordon’s happen more than you may think.

Experts all agree that the data is underreported, but NBC 5 Investigates found that in the past decade, an average of 30 to more than 50 babies die in Illinois every year after accidentally suffocating while sleeping with a parent.

And while the overall infant-mortality rate in Illinois has fallen by nearly 20 percent, this problem appears to be growing.

“We’ve already seen this year to date: 77 deaths related to unsafe sleep that have been reported to the (Department of Children Family Services),” said Nora Harms-Pavelski, DCFS Deputy Director for Child Services.

Data inconsistent due to reporting requirements

NBC 5 Investigates has analyzed data from several state agencies, including DCFS, the Illinois Department of Health, the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office and the Illinois Child Death Review Team.

Each agency reported varying data on the number of accidental suffocation infant deaths related to bed-sharing in the last decade. Experts attributed the disparity to a lack of research and technology.

For example, Harms-Pavelski said many of the deaths were categorized as Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, or SIDS, deaths.

“As we’ve been able to research more, we find that many of those deaths are actually suffocation or asphyxiation death, it wasn’t a death from SIDS,” said Harms-Pavelski.

DCFS said Illinois lost 148 infants to sleep-related death from 2009 to 2014, the most current reporting year. Harms-Pavelski said a majority of those deaths was a result of babies sharing the same sleep surface as parents.

The Illinois Child Death Review Team recorded an annual average of 55 infant suffocation deaths from 2006 to 2014.

“One death is way too many,” said Nancy Maruyama, Executive Director of SIDS of Illinois.

Maruyama’s first-born son Brendan died of SIDS in 1985. She has since dedicated her life to education and awareness of safe sleep.

“Our goal for our organization is to put ourselves out of business.”

Advocates of safe sleep said parents should follow the ABCs: babies should sleep alone, on their backs, and in their own cribs without pillows or blankets.

Bed-sharing has benefits, say some researchers

Dr. James McKenna, a cultural anthropologist at the University of Notre Dame, advocates for what he calls “breast-sleeping.”

McKenna said breastfeeding and bed-sharing are not only interdependent but encouraged. He said research shows breastfed babies depend on that close contact.

“Bodies as infants really depend on physiological sensory exchanges,” said McKenna in a phone interview.

McKenna and other advocates also said both nursing moms and babies get much more rest when bed-sharing.

Leigh Skorupskas, a mother of four, including a 2-month-old, agrees.

“A breastfeeding mom seems to be more in tune with a sleeping baby, and their sleep cycles match each other,” said Skorupskas, who said she only supports bed-sharing strictly for nursing mothers. “Just like everything else in this world, nothing is for everybody. There’s no all-for-one situation.”

New guidelines

The American Academy of Pediatrics announced in October new recommendations that newborns should share their parents’ bedroom for the first year as a way to reduce SIDS. That does not mean they should share the same beds or any sleep surface, according to the academy.

But Gordon goes a step further. She’s a new mom again to four-month-old Emmett after Payton’s death five years ago.

“I have his bassinet set up where I actually have to walk to him. I turn on the lights, turn on the TV. I do what I have to do,” said Gordon. “Whenever I feel like I can’t do this anymore…I always have this picture in my head of Payton in heaven, tapping someone on the shoulder and saying, ‘Do you see her? That’s my mom, and I’m proud of her.’ That’s what keeps me going.”

Contact Us