The simple message that can save babies: 'Same room, different beds'

Every year in Philadelphia, about 30 babies die unnecessarily, often lying right next to parents who love them deeply.  This is a repeating tragedy that we can end, and with a new campaign launched last week, the Philadelphia Department of Public Health hopes to do just that.

Babies are vulnerable when they sleep. Their brains are not mature enough to ring alarm bells when their airways are partially blocked – by a pillow, a blanket, or even a parent – and they can’t readily move their heads to get more air.  In these situations the falling levels of oxygen and rising levels of carbon dioxide in their blood can cause babies to stop breathing entirely, leading to what is called a “sleep-related death.”

In years past, babies who were put to sleep on their stomachs were the primary victims of sleep-related deaths. After “Back to Sleep” campaigns launched in 1994 urged parents to put babies to bed on their backs, the rates of sleep-related deaths fell byhalf in the U.S.

Still, too many infants are dying needlessly.  There is one major contributor found in almost 70 percent of sleep-related infant deaths in Philadelphia today: when a baby is placed to sleep on a bed or a couch rather than in a crib or a “pack ‘n play.”  A bed or couch may be a comfortable place for an adult to sleep, but babies can easily become smothered when they are put to sleep on furniture for adults.

For years, we have listened to Philadelphia families share their sleeping habits. We found that parents often feel safer and calmer when their babies are close.  To many parents, sleeping with their baby on a bed or couch feels protective.  Based on that observation, we created our campaign message: “Same Room, Different Beds, Better Rest for All.” This acknowledges common parental feelings while simultaneously sharing potentially life-saving advice.

Many families whose infants die of sleep-related deaths own cribs and use them — but not consistently, leading to a tragedy during the occasional nap on the couch. With this in mind, our campaign stresses the importance of “Every Step, Every Time”:

Step 1: Your baby always sleeps in a Pack ‘n Play or crib.
Step 2: That Pack ‘n Play or crib is just for the baby. NO pillows, bumper, blankets or toys.
Step 3: Lay your baby on his or her back.

The campaign images, showing Philadelphia parents keeping their infants close without sharing a bed or couch, will appear on bus shelters, subway platforms and billboards. The message will also be distributed over Facebook, Pandora and local radio stations. The health department is also asking hospitals, doctors, childcare providers, and others to distribute this message to parents of newborns or those who are expecting. Families can learn more about safe sleep and request a pack ‘n play by visiting the campaign’s website at SafeSleepPhilly.org.

Many health problems can only be cured or prevented with expensive medical care.  Saving infants from sleep-related deaths is not one of them. It requires nothing more than a pack ‘n play or crib that is used consistently at nap time and bedtime. If everyone in touch with new parents delivers the “Same Room, Different Beds” message, each year 30 more babies in Philadelphia can reach their first birthdays.

Thomas Farley, MD, MPH, is the commissioner of the Philadelphia Department of Public Health.