Infant deaths are on the rise, both nationally and locally, and area health officials say they are working to remedy that in part by targeting safe sleep habits.

Last March, Baltimore officials announced an increase in sleep-related deaths. Before this, the city’s B’more for Healthy Babies program saw a drop in sleep death rates by over 40 percent since beginning its Sleep Safe campaign in 2010. Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced an uptick in the United States’ infant mortality rate — the first year-to-year increase since 2001 to 2002.

B’more for Healthy Babies, the Baltimore City Health Department, the Baltimore County Health Department, and the Maryland Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics hosted their eighth annual Safe Sleep summit in late September at the Cylburn Arboretum. The focus was on improving the ways health officials educate families and communities about safe sleep best practices. 

Attendees examined strategies and recommendations for safe sleep, as well as best practices for educating new moms and families. That means teaching families things like the ABCD’s of sleep safety: A is for alone, B is on their back, C means in a crib, and D means don’t smoke.

“Both in Baltimore City and Baltimore County, this is disproportionately hitting the less fortunate families, just like everything,” said Scott Krugman, vice chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the Herman & Walter Samuelson Children’s Hospital at Sinai Hospital.

He said that new parents sometimes feel that having their baby sleep next to them is best, but that’s not the case. 

“Helping people understand that having a bassinet right next to you and in your room is infinitely safer than putting your baby in the bed with you is an important message,” he said.

“It can’t be the doctors in the hospital, just saying their thing, because it really comes from grandmothers and communities and churches and everybody in the community having to do this.”

“It’s good information,” said Janet Martin. Martin is a pediatric social work intern who attended the summit for the first time this year. “Working with underprivileged and underserved communities, if they don’t have access to a crib, then what can I tell them that they can use in the meantime, while I’m helping to figure out how to get them the resources?” 

“Sometimes it takes us meeting them where they are,” said Danyelle Crawford, a social worker in the pediatrics department at Sinai Hospital. She said much more outreach and home visits are needed to spread the word. She said cultural competency can also be a factor that medical professionals must consider.

“It can be difficult for African American moms to speak to a Caucasian pediatrician,” Crawford said. 

Krugman said the medical community needs to be better about reaching out to parents who have had bad experiences in problematic systems.

“Young moms probably aren’t getting the support they need because they don’t know, or they might not want it because they don’t trust the system. We have a lot of trust to rebuild there,” he said. 

He added that health officials need all hands on deck with the same consistent message, making sure to model a safe sleep environment at 100 percent and counseling at 100 percent. 

Counseling at 100 percent includes checking in with doctors, friends offering support, and generally just talking to someone if needed. 

“It’s hard enough to care for a baby when you’re just not depressed, but because you’re not getting enough sleep, you’re tired, you work and then you throw that on top of it and it just gets really, really hard. And that’s when the risk definitely goes up.” 

While discussing how the community can be more involved, Krugman mentioned he thinks we live very isolated lives — and that makes things more difficult.

“We’ve got to revamp the public messaging,” Krugman said. “Other efforts to help spread awareness are public health campaigns to help make sure that people are getting the message.”