Some Midlands parents and caregivers are unintentionally causing the deaths of infants during sleep, Richland County Coroner Gary Watts said Tuesday.
“This is a situation that touches everybody,” said Watts, who held a news conference to announce “Sleep Right Through the Night,” aimed at educating people about the dangers of unsafe sleeping conditions and to promote what he called “safe sleep environments.”
Statewide, some 435 infants have died since 2012 in circumstances linked to unsafe sleeping conditions, according to the State Law Enforcement Division, which has a unit that investigates child deaths statewide.
In Richland County, 16 infants under age 1 have died since 2012 because of unsafe sleeping conditions, Watts said. About 10 of those 16 infant deaths were caused by parents, caregivers or siblings accidentally smothering the infant, Watts said.
“That’s almost one every other month, and it’s particularly heartbreaking when you have a situation that is absolutely, totally preventable,” Watts said.
Two other major causes of infant sleeping deaths are clutter in cribs that can cause a baby to stop breathing, and babies not sleeping on their backs, Watts said.
Infants under age 1 are especially vulnerable, Watts said.
“They don’t have a lot of body strength, they can’t do a whole lot, they can’t push away, they can’t squirm away,” Watts said. Even a dog snuggling up against an infant can cut off his airway, he said.
A lot of people sleep with their children because “their grandmama did it, and their mama did it, so they are going to do it,” Watts said. “It’s a cultural issue. We’re trying to break through that and make people understand we’re not trying to keep people from bonding with their child.
“But we want to build a bond with that child that will last their entire life – and not have it cut short at six months,” Watts said.
Watts was joined Tuesday by more than two dozen people from his office as well as other state and local child welfare advocacy groups, including a group from SLED led by Chief Mark Keel, along with representatives from Safe Kids and Kids Count.
The campaign will include six-second spots on seven area digital billboards donated by Lamar Advertising, along with outreaches to hospitals and pediatricians and free educational classes for parents and caregivers. The first educational class will be Sept. 13; register by calling Richland deputy coroner Ann Neeley, (803) 576-1799.
Laura Hudson, co-chair of the state child fatality committee that reviews all deaths of children 17 and under, said the unsafe sleeping problem is widespread.
At a recent meeting of her group, she said, “Of all the cases we reviewed, 40 percent of them involved unsafe sleeping.”
Hudson, who attended Tuesday’s news conference, commended Watts on his campaign.
“We hope other coroners in the state will do what he’s doing,” she added.