Stanislaus County officials have tracked a troubling rise in infant deaths caused by unsafe sleeping arrangements.
Kristi Herr Ah You, chief deputy coroner, said 12 babies died in the past eight months from accidental suffocation while sleeping with parents or family members, and one death was attributed to sudden infant death syndrome.
The cause of death is pending for one infant who died this month, she said.
The 14 deaths have prompted county officials to reinforce the message that it's dangerous for an infant to sleep with parents or older siblings. Officials also want parents to consider other sleeping precautions for their little ones, such as placing a baby on his or her back in a crib free of pillows, large blankets or stuffed animals.
Herr Ah You said the 13 babies who died between Aug. 1 and March 31 were 1 to 9 months old. The majority were 2 to 3 months old, when infants are not strong enough to lift their heads or turn onto their sides.
The children had been sleeping with parents or siblings on beds covered with large pillows, blankets and other items. Some accidentally were smothered by a parent or got into a position where they couldn't breathe, Herr Ah You said.
She said two deaths occurred on the same day in March, and another occurred a day later. In some cases, the infants were sleeping with parents who were under the influence of alcohol or cold medication, which could have impaired their ability to wake up at signs of trouble, she said.
It appeared that all of the deaths were accidental and authorities did not fault the parents.
The chief deputy coroner said there was no apparent pattern to the unusual rise in deaths, other than infants sleeping in arrangements often considered hazardous by the medical community.
"We need to have some public education to demonstrate what is safe," Herr Ah You said at a sheriff's office news conference. "We expect to have cases like this once in a while, not every week."
The 14 cases over eight months are more than the comparable infant deaths in all of 2006, when 12 died from asphyxiation or SIDS.
Learned from classes, books
Parents often learn about safe sleeping arrangements for infants during pregnancy classes, from parenting books and from tutorials in hospital birthing centers. The hazards of letting a baby sleep on an adult bed include falls, suffocation and getting trapped between the bed and a wall or a headboard.
Putting a baby on his or her stomach to sleep is widely regarded as a risk factor for SIDS, an often unexplained death of a previously healthy infant.
For Stanislaus County health officials, the recent deaths draw attention to a need for broader education.
They held a meeting last week with representatives of the health care industry, schools and community organizations, said Nancy Fisher, assistant director of the county Health Serv-ices Agency. More meetings are planned to develop an education effort.
Fisher used a portable crib and doll at the news conference to demonstrate how to put a baby safely down to sleep. She removed a teddy bear, blankets and pillows from the crib to reveal a safe sleeping surface -- a firm mattress with a taut sheet. She placed the doll, which was dressed in a sleeper, on its back with its feet against one end of the crib, then put a lightweight blanket over the doll and tucked it in.
She said putting an infant on an adult pillow is a mistake, because the soft surface can put the baby in a position in which it has trouble breathing.
Fisher, like other officials, didn't have an explanation for the recent rise in deaths. She suggested that many parents are stressed and find it easier to comfort a crying baby by bringing the child to bed, while they get some rest, too.
Bed sharing has become more common in the United States, according to a 2003 report by the National Institutes of Health that found that almost 13 percent of adults shared a bed with infants in 2000, compared with 5.5 percent in 1993.
Proponents of bed sharing claim benefits such as longer periods of breast-feeding and bonding with the infant.
According to the study, bed sharing was more common among blacks and Asians.
Herr Ah You said the recent documented cases occurred among families of different income categories, with six deaths occurring in Modesto, two in Ceres, two in Turlock, two in Riverbank and one in Patterson.
Officials documented one case in December in which a baby was sharing a bed with parents in an unheated home. The parents and baby were on a mattress on the floor with many blankets and pillows.
In another incident, a 3- to 4-month-old baby rolled off a bed and ended up in a position where the child couldn't breathe, Herr Ah You said. The adults didn't hear the baby roll off the bed.
Herr Ah You said the deaths she reviewed were tragedies for parents who were trying hard to care for their children. She has spoken to the Hispanic Leadership Council about the need for more education and is looking to talk to other groups.
Amanda Weimer, a member of the MOMS Club of Modesto Central, said parents need to know the dangers of what may seem like harmless sleeping habits.
"Some parents will do (bed sharing) out of convenience because the baby is fussy," Weimer said. "I think you need to take the extra step to make sure your child is safe. Even if it means getting up and putting the baby in the crib."
Any groups wanting to hold a talk on safe sleeping practices for infants can e-mail Herr Ah You at email@example.com.
Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2321.