With families spending more time at home because of the coronavirus pandemic, child advocates are warning parents that sleeping or napping with their infants can have fatal consequences.
Moira O’Neill, director of the Office of Child Advocate, said Friday that the current home confinement conditions could increase the risk for sleep-related infant deaths. The state Division of Children, Youth and Families has notified her office of two accidental infant deaths since February that appear related to unsafe sleep practices, she said.
That prompted the OCA to issue a statement Friday warning parents of the danger.
People may be sleeping more and drinking more because of the health crisis, O’Neill said, and those factors could increase the risk of unsafe sleep practices. Napping on the sofa or sharing a bed with an infant may be more common as families wait out the coronavirus crisis, she said.
It’s not clear whether the two recent infant deaths are related to risk factors from COVID-19, O’Neill said, but her office wanted to call attention to the issue as a precaution. She said other experts in the region also are reporting an increase in sleep-related infant deaths.
“Prevention is the key,” she said. “We don’t want any parent waking up to that tragedy. It’s horrible.”
O’Neill said the two leading causes of sleep-related infant deaths are soft bedding and bed-sharing. “What happens is sometimes people roll over on their kids,” she said. “Sometimes kids get stuck in between them … or get wrapped up in the blankets.”
“It’s great to have the baby in the room because then you’re aware of the baby, but in a separate sleeping environment so they don’t get wrapped up in anything.”
The highest risk is for infants under six months old, O’Neill said. “The science is really pretty clear that babies sleep safest when they have a firm surface without any stuff,” she said. “So when you see those pictures of bumpers and stuffed animals, all of those increase the risk for kids.”
According to a public health brief issued last May by the state Department of Health and Human Services, New Hampshire had 62 sleep-related infant deaths between 2011 and 2018.
Fifteen were classified as Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, 42 were from “undetermined” causes, and five were from asphyxiation. According to DHHS, 85% of sleep-related infant deaths were among infants found sleeping in a place other than a crib.
In 84% of cases, there was soft or loose bedding in the sleep area, and 58% involved sharing a sleep surface with an adult (bed, chair or couch). Only 48% of the infants who died had been placed on their backs to sleep, the position child health experts recommend.
“It is critically important that family members and caregivers continue to stay aware of and implement safe sleep practices, particularly now as many New Hampshire families are staying home and spending more time with their infants,” Lisa Morris, director of DHHS’s Division of Public Health Services (DPHS), said Friday.
DPHS’ Sudden Unexplained Infant Death (SUID) Program offers resources to expectant or new parents about how to reduce the risks from unsafe sleep settings. The program also works with the New Hampshire Office of Chief Medical Examiner to support families who have suffered the loss of an infant unexpectedly.
O’Neill said she is concerned by reports that many people have increased their alcohol use as they’re staying home during the public health crisis. It’s almost like vacation behavior, she said.
“When you’re not going to work consistently, you do different things,” she said. “You eat stuff you shouldn’t eat, and you drink more, and that’s happening now.”
But she warned, “If you’re caring for an infant, it really could be a problem.”