Dr. Evelyn Johnson was overcome by a “sense of emptiness” when she got the call from the coroner about an infant’s death. Johnson, a...

Dr. Evelyn Johnson was overcome by a “sense of emptiness” when she got the call from the coroner about an infant’s death.

Johnson, a Brunswick pediatrician, had just seen the month-old baby two days before. The child was nursing well, and its development was right on track.

The mother, after breastfeeding, fell asleep in a recliner with the child on her chest. The baby slipped off the mother’s chest, got stuck between pillows and cushions and suffocated while the mother slept.

The death occurred about 18 months ago, and it still affects Johnson. “It’s heartbreaking,’’ she said.

She told the story of the infant’s death at a news conference at the state Capitol on Tuesday. The event was held to promote safe sleeping practices for babies: that they should always sleep alone, on their backs, and in a crib.

In 2010, 244 Georgia babies died before their first birthday, and 193 of those deaths were sleep-related.

More than half of the sleep deaths occurred when the baby was in an adult bed, not a crib. The practice in which parents and infants sleep in the same bed is known as “co-sleeping.’’

“Every other day, a healthy baby in Georgia dies of a sleep-related accident,’’ said Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald at the Capitol event.

Fitzgerald joined pediatricians, government health officials and Georgia’s first lady, Sandra Deal, in the education effort.

Any child’s death is a tragedy, Mrs. Deal said. “Loss of life during infancy, especially if it is sudden and unexpected, is even more horrific, especially if the loss was preventable.’’

When there is no clear evidence of a definable cause of a baby’s death — such as unsafe sleeping conditions, negligence, foul play or a medical problem — the death is ruled SIDS — Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

Since 1998, though, many infant deaths that once would have been attributed to SIDS have been traced to unsafe sleeping conditions.

Allison Glover of Stone Mountain lost a baby boy to SIDS in 2000. She told the attendees at the Tuesday event that her child was sleeping on his back, and had just been to the doctor for a checkup.

It’s not clear what caused her son’s death, Glover said.  But she wants other mothers to be aware of all the risks. “I don’t know the answers,’’ she said. “I implore you to share this message with as many people as possible.’’

The rate of SIDS has dropped, Dr. Bob Wiskind, president of the Georgia chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said Tuesday. “Unfortunately, the number of other sleep-related deaths has increased,’’ he said.

Nationally, the CDC reported in April that child death rates from suffocation are on the rise. There was a 54 percent increase in reported suffocation among infants less than 1 year old.

The study didn’t break down the circumstances of suffocation, but many of those infant deaths are almost certainly the result of co-sleeping.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) advises against co-sleeping, which can put an infant at risk of suffocation and strangulation. Concerns about the dangers of infants sleeping in the same bed as adults go back a long way, long before the term “co-sleeping” was invented. But many people of all educational backgrounds are still unaware that the practice is dangerous.

The AAP recommends that babies sleep in the same bedroom as their parents, but in a separate crib or bassinet, for the first few months of life. It also recommends that there be no loose bedding, soft objects or toys where the baby is sleeping.

Experts agree that a crib is the safest place for an infant to sleep, but not every family can afford one. In that case, the AAP recommends substituting a dresser drawer that has been removed from the dresser.

Government buildings in Georgia will post signs to remind parents and caregivers about safe sleeping practices.

To reduce the risk of SIDS, women should:

* Get regular health care during pregnancy

* Do not smoke during pregnancy or after the baby is born

* Breastfeed the baby

* Give the baby a dry pacifier that’s not attached to a string for naps and for sleeping at night

* Use a firm sleep surface, covered by a fitted sheet


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Andy Miller

Andy Miller is editor and CEO of Georgia Health News

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