News Release: Unsafe sleep environments account for 10 times as many infant deaths as car crashes

Minnesota Department of Health

Unsafe sleep environments account for 10 times as many infant deaths as car crashes

Health officials urge parents to take action during Infant Safe Sleep Week

Parents wouldn’t leave the hospital without a car seat for their newborn, and evidence shows it is just as important to know the ABCs of safe sleep for babies. To promote this message, Governor Mark Dayton proclaimed the week of October 23-29 as Infant Safe Sleep Week in Minnesota (PDF).

The Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) compared the numbers of infant deaths linked to traffic crashes and the number of infant deaths linked to unsafe sleep. In the past five years, fewer than five infants per year died in traffic crashes, but more than 50 infants a year died while sleeping.

“We’ve done a good job reducing the number of infant deaths associated with vehicle crashes and we need to be just as aggressive about keeping babies safe during sleep,” said Health Commissioner Dr. Ed Ehlinger. “We can save dozens of babies a year by supporting parents, grandparents, caregivers, communities and retailers in their efforts to have babies sleep alone on their backs in safety-approved cribs free of pillows and blankets.”

With data increasingly showing that unsafe sleep environments account for nearly all unexpected infant deaths in Minnesota, MDH and the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS) are coming together during Infant Safe Sleep Week to urge parents to follow the simple steps that can help ensure their babies sleep safely. The ABCs of Safe Sleep are:

In addition to these safe sleep basics, experts recommend that infants should always sleep without blankets or pillows because the risk of suffocation is higher when loose objects are in the crib with the infant. Instead of using blankets to keep infants warm, parents are urged to dress babies in pajamas or other clothing appropriate for the temperature. As always, it’s a good idea to talk with a doctor or nurse if parents have questions or concerns.

An MDH analysis of sudden unexpected infant deaths in 2014 found that all 53 deaths that happened while the infant was asleep were in unsafe sleep environments. Sixty-three percent of the babies were sharing a sleep surface, such as a bed, sofa or recliner, with another person. Many were in an unsafe sleep position, such as being placed on their side or tummy (46 percent), had loose objects around them such as pillows or blankets (85 percent) or were not placed on a firm surface to sleep such as a crib mattress. In Minnesota, the rate for sudden unexpected infant deaths is four times as high for African American babies as for white babies, and six times as high for American Indian babies as for white babies. Data suggest that Minnesota’s health and racial inequities are strongly linked with a lack of opportunity for a healthy start that includes a safe sleeping environment. Infant mortality outcomes are strongly influenced by social and economic factors such as income, education and housing.

The health department review found that soft items such as blankets, pillows, crib bumpers and toys in the crib pose a hazard as does exposure to cigarette smoke. It is also important for the infant to sleep separately from other sleeping children and adults since research has found that this is hazardous. A safe sleeping environment during naptime is just as important as it is during nighttime sleeping. Beds and other places such as a couch or recliner can be dangerous for infants.

DHS Commissioner Emily Piper noted that law requires licensed child care providers to comply with infant-specific safe sleep standards and training requirements.

“Safe sleep practices are also essential for all child care providers,” said Piper. “Since we implemented new safe sleep standards and training requirements for providers in 2013, the number of deaths in child care settings has remained low. So far this year, there have been no infant deaths in family child care settings associated with unsafe sleep practices.” Parents should also discuss safe sleep practices with anyone watching their child, such as friends and family.

Sudden unexpected infant deaths are a subset of infant deaths that occur before age 1 from causes that are not immediately obvious, but which require a thorough investigation, including an autopsy, to determine the cause and manner of death. The three most widely reported types of sudden unexpected infant deaths in the U.S. include accidental suffocation and strangulation in bed, unknown causes and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).

For more information on safe sleep for infants, visit the MDH safe sleep page.


Media inquiries:

Scott Smith
MDH Communications