Public health officials say Minnesota must get more aggressive in reducing infant sleep deaths, just as the state focused on reducing infant car crash deaths through widespread car seat campaigns.
A new analysis of state data by the Minnesota Department of Health shows that unsafe sleep environments account for 10 times as many infant deaths as car crashes.
Fewer than five infants died annually in traffic crashes in the past five years, compared to more than 50 infant deaths per year while sleeping.
The data also show that nearly all unexpected infant deaths in the state are associated with unsafe sleep environments.
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Since these deaths are considered almost always preventable, the state should be able to significantly reduce them said Susan Castellano, the department's maternal and child health section manager.
"I think we could get that number down far, far further than 50. I think we could count them on one hand if we really eliminated the deaths that were preventable over the course of a year," said Castellano.
The department's analysis found that in 2014 all 53 deaths that happened while the infant was asleep were in unsafe sleep environments. Sixty-three percent of the babies were sharing a bed, sofa or recliner with another person.
The agency said many infants were also in an unsafe sleep position, such as being placed on their side or tummy or near loose objects such as pillows or blankets that could suffocate them.
Sleep recommendations have changed a lot over the years said Castellano, causing confusion for many parents.
"People understand car seats. People may not know as much as they need to know about keeping their infants safe while they're sleeping," she said.
The Health Department says parents should always place infants on their back for sleep in a safety-approved crib with a firm mattress that is free of toys, blankets or pillows.
Instead of using blankets to keep infants warm, parents are urged to dress babies in pajamas or other clothing appropriate for the temperature. Siblings and adults should also avoid sleeping with an infant.