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posted: 1/18/2013 5:00 AM

Editorial: Protecting our youngest at bedtime

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The Daily Herald Editorial Board

Of the 90 deaths caused by child abuse in Illinois last year, nearly half were infants who died in unsafe sleeping conditions. The babies were laid -- whether through carelessness or ignorance -- in a place that essentially became a death trap for them. Many were sleeping in bed with a parent or with thick blankets around them or on their stomach on a too-soft surface when they died.

It's nothing short of astounding that something so preventable continues to take a toll on our young. While any type of child abuse calls for continuing examination of its causes and proposals for solutions, the death of a baby in an unsafe sleep environment is a tragedy that need not occur. Yet, in 2012, at least 40 children did not live to see their first birthday.

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What's needed is stepped-up education about safe practices that should include training for parents as well as broader awareness efforts by state agencies, nonprofit services and hospitals.

Illinois Department of Children and Family Services spokesman Dave Clarkin says the agency works to warn new mothers about dangerous infant sleeping practices and has added a new focus: grandparents. "Young mothers in particular turn heavily to their own mothers for advice," Clarkin told The Associated Press last week.

That's not to mention the many grandparents who baby-sit or are raising grandchildren themselves. They too need to be updated on the safety precautions.

Last year, a Rolling Meadows grandmother who had custody of her 5-month-old grandson received 30 months of probation for her role in the baby's death. The child, who had been left alone in the home, had suffocated while lying on a pile of laundry. Clearly, leaving even an immobile infant alone for any amount of time could endanger his or her life. Drug and alcohol use by caregivers also can be a factor, but many other unsafe practices are less obvious, especially to a generation that may have done things differently.

For instance, in the early 1990s when incidents of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome were rising, doctors began recommending that babies be placed on their backs at bedtime. The "Back to Sleep" campaign helped reduce SIDS deaths.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has expanded its recommendations from being only SIDS-focused to creating a safe sleep environment that can reduce the risks of all sleep-related infant deaths. This includes removing soft or loose bedding from an infant's sleep area. The academy also recommends room sharing with new babies but not bed sharing. Infants who sleep in adult beds are 20 times more likely to suffocate than those who sleep in cribs, a recent state report says.

DCFS has begun reaching out to the AARP in its education efforts. This is a positive step, and one that other social service agencies involved with infant care can follow. With 60 abuse cases still being investigated for 2012, officials expect the number of deaths to surpass the highest annual death total, 102 in the late 1980s. Beyond the numbers, each statistic represents a part of our future that never will be realized. We must not allow this to continue.

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