More than 40 infants a year die in Philadelphia from what health officials yesterday called unsafe yet easily avoidable sleeping conditions: sharing a bed with a parent, being placed facedown in a crib, or put in a bed with pillows, cushions or blankets.

Sudden unexplained infant deaths - mostly from suffocation in "unsafe sleeping environments" - totaled 41 last year, 49 in 2005, and 48 in 2004, city health and human service officials said at a news conference.

Although the 2006 figure was lowest, the loss of life - particularly from sharing beds with adults - remains high enough that the city plans to relaunch a public-service advertising campaign it began three years ago.

"The number of deaths we see for no other reason than unsafe sleeping conditions is heartbreaking," said Arthur C. Evans, acting commissioner of human services. "In the past six months, frankly, I was shocked at the number of reports we got regarding co-sleeping. We had to act."

Officials said they were most alarmed by the lingering racial disparity in the number of infant deaths. Mortality for babies 12 months or younger is generally higher among minorities nationwide.

"African American babies remain at substantially higher risk," said Carmen Paris, the acting city health commissioner. About 75 percent of infants who died from unsafe sleep environments were black, according to the city. That was on par with Washington and other major cities, said Rachel Moon of the Children's National Medical Center.

A portion of the yet-to-be designed ad campaign will be aimed at minority parents, Paris and Evans said. In 2004, Paris rejected an ad campaign to alert parents to unsafe sleeping conditions because the city had not done enough to make sure resources were in place to help them. The campaign eventually went forward after a coalition of advocacy groups was formed.

National ad campaigns alerting parents to unsafe sleeping environments - primarily the placing of babies on their stomachs, which was linked to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome - began in 1994 and are credited with reducing SIDS deaths by 50 percent.

Philadelphia neonatologist Eileen Tyrala said parents shared their bed with a baby for reasons that ranged from wanting to get a better night's sleep to trying to make sure the child is safe.

But infants are safest when placed face up in a crib or bassinet near the bed rather than with parents, said Tyrala, former director of neonatology at Temple University Hospital.

Some parents are reluctant to put babies on their backs because they tend to sleep more soundly on their stomachs, she said. A facedown baby, however, is less likely to cry in distress if suffocating. Parents should also make sure cribs are free of soft blankets, stuffed animals, or any other objects that could suffocate a child.

Other risk factors for infant death include exposure to cigarette smoke, although experts are unsure exactly why.

For information about safe sleeping positions and for crib requests (or donations), go to http://go.philly.com/health

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Contact staff writer John Sullivan
at 215-854-2473 or johnsullivan@phillynews.com.