Spike to 18 sleep-related infant deaths in Baltimore City, county alarms officials

Published 3/7/2023 1:13 p.m. EST, Updated 3/7/2023 2:25 p.m. EST

Baby Mobile and shadow above a baby crib in the bedroom

There were 18 infant deaths related to unsafe sleeping conditions in Baltimore City and Baltimore County in December and January, according to city officials who called the spike alarming and preventable.

The deaths over about two months total more than the city and county typically see in a year, and officials said there were several factors to blame, including a surge in respiratory illnesses such as RSV that make it harder for small children to breathe.

Another big factor was the pandemic that cut off families from an array of services offered through a program called B’more for Healthy Babies that had shown success in lowering the infant fatalities, health officials said. The program has since restarted its home visits to new and expecting parents but fewer families have responded to offers of assistance.

“The recent spike reminds us we cannot be complacent,” said Dr. Letitia Dzirasa, city health commissioner. “We need to get the word out about this alarming trend. These deaths are preventable.”

The officials said during a news conference in a Mercy Medical Center building that 11 of the 18 deaths were among city infants, and seven of those infants had respiratory symptoms in the 24 hours before they died.

(l to r) Corine Mullings, deputy director of Baltimore's Department of Social Services;, Rebecca Dineen, Dr. Letitia Dzirasa (assistant Heath commissioner and health commissioner) of Mercy Medical Center speaks at the news conference on the rise of infant deaths.

But the common thread among all the deaths was unsafe sleeping practices. Health experts have long pointed to the ABCDs of safe sleep — the baby should be alone, on their back, in a crib without blankets or toys, and parents are told, ”Don’t smoke.” Secondhand smoke makes it difficult for newborns to breathe.

The city launched B’more for Healthy Babies in 2009 to educate parents and caregivers about safe sleeping conditions and to provide other services. The program sends workers to new parents’ homes and provides equipment such as cribs. The program also offers counseling, support groups and a health care call line.

Health officials said some parents and caregivers co-sleep in bed or on sofas with their babies, believing it’s healthier, safer or at least far more convenient during a highly stressful and exhausting time with newborns.

“The data doesn’t prove that,” said Dr. Robert Atlas, chair of the department of obstetrics and gynecology at Mercy, who said the hospital shows new parents a video about safe sleep, provides literature and makes follow-up calls in partnership with the health department.

Rebecca Dineen, an assistant city health commissioner, said it’s too early to say if the uptick in deaths is a national trend, given the surge in RSV and isolation during the pandemic was experienced across the country.

She said the state is currently assessing if other counties beyond Baltimore also saw a spike.

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Dr. Robert Atlas of Mercy Medical Center talks about the rise in Baltimore Infants deaths.

Baltimore County health officials had recently reported there was an uptick in deaths in the past two months related to unsafe sleeping practices, and said officials had alerted hospitals, community groups and pediatricians to increase their efforts at providing information to families and other caregivers.

B’more for Healthy Babies, which is largely a city program but can straddle the county line when parents seek services, was recently touted in a report from the nonprofit Abell Foundation for reducing infant deaths in the decade ending in 2019.

Deaths were reduced by a third by educating parents and providing services such as prenatal medical care, support groups and counseling. The program also made progress toward closing long-standing racial disparities among the infant deaths.

The program focused on the main causes of deaths, including prematurity (babies born before 27 weeks) and low birth weight (babies born weighing less than 5.5 pounds). The use of unsafe sleeping practices was the third most common cause of infant death.

The report did cite “setbacks” due to disruptions in programming during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dzirasa and the other health officials said they want to spread the word about safe sleep practices to prevent more deaths.

“This needs to be a priority,” she said.