Safe Sleep: Coroner’s fight to prevent ‘devastating’ infant deaths

Faced with death on a daily basis, Lycoming County’s coroner of 20 years is a strong advocate for prevention, especially among infants.

Educating parents, grandparents and guardians about safe sleep for infants became a passion of Coroner Charles E. Kiessling Jr. about 10 years ago. 

“These are the most devastating (deaths). You bring home this little bundle of joy and months later the baby is dead and you’re putting them in a box in the ground,” Kiessling said. “After years of looking at these deaths, I said, ‘We’ve got to do something about this.’ ”

Over the years Kiessling began to see that prevention efforts reduced the number of DUI-related deaths, so he decided to implement the same methods with infants by starting the Cribs for Kids program. 

Since then over 200 cribs have been distributed to those in need, he said. The cribs are provided through local donations and grants. Often babies are asphyxiated when they sleep in the same bed as parents or grandparents and are unintentionally suffocated, Kiessling said. 

Safe Sleep reminders

Sleep alone

On their back

Safety-approved crib

No blankets, pillows, bumpers

He added that in the United States people tend to sleep in much softer mattresses, which cause the child to roll toward the adult while they are sleeping. 

“It doesn’t take anything to occlude an infant’s mouth and nose, which is their lifeline,” Kiessling said. “And that’s typically what we see with these co-sleeping deaths.” 

Across the country, on average, 3,500 infants die unexpectedly each year, and 900 of these are due to accidental suffocation in bed. Until recently, the county had gone for three years without a sudden infant death, but this is no longer the case, according to Kate Nickles, deputy coroner and Cribs for Kids program administrator. 

“Although I am incredibly saddened at the death of another child, I am thankful to know that it was not because of a lack of education on safe sleep,” Nickles said. “We know better now, so we should do better.” 

Safe sleep practices are much different today than they were years ago, Nickles said, and added that any survivors of an improper sleep environment “were, and are, because of luck.” 

“Babies who sleep in adult beds have a 40% greater chance of dying,” Nickles said. 

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, babies should sleep alone, on their backs and in a safety-approved crib with a firm mattress and no bumpers, blankets, pillows or toys. 

But infant sleeping deaths are not limited to beds, according to Kim Smith, press safety officer for the state Department of Transportation. 

Infants in car seat carries also are at risk, she said, cautioning against leaving the infant in the carrier outside the vehicle. 

“Those carriers are designed to work with the vehicle’s seat to have the right recline and a baby in the carrier is not safe on a flat surface, Smith said. 

She also stressed the importance of keeping babies in carriers off tables and making sure to keep the straps tight.

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