Philly launches effort to prevent infant sleeping deaths

Nine-month-old Aarav Vyas (right) wears a shirt with the slogan ''I sleep with this side up.'' He and his mother, Aasta Mehta, along with Jasmine Pitt-Mitchell and her 6-month-daughter, Leilani (left) helped to kick off Philadelphia's safe sleeping campaign. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Nine-month-old Aarav Vyas (right) wears a shirt with the slogan ''I sleep with this side up.'' He and his mother, Aasta Mehta, along with Jasmine Pitt-Mitchell and her 6-month-daughter, Leilani (left) helped to kick off Philadelphia's safe sleeping campaign. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Each year, 30 infants die sleep-related deaths in Philadelphia, that’s part of why the city’s infant mortality rate is worse than the national average.

In an effort to address that, the City of Philadelphia on Tuesday launched a public awareness campaign that encourages safe sleeping arrangements for babies. Officials are partnering with hospitals, pediatricians and early child care centers to get the word out.

Under the headline “Same room, different beds, better rest for all,” Jasmine Mitchell of West Philadelphia and her 6-month-old daughter are featured in the campaign.

Growing up, Mitchell said she was told babies should be placed on their stomachs. But after talking to her doctor at the University of Pennsylvania, she learned that that’s decades-old thinking that can result in death.

“After receiving a lot of support and knowledge on crib safety … I knew that my child should be sleeping on her back. Back is best,” she said. Still, she sees parents in her community placing babies on their stomachs.

“And I’m like, ‘You need to leave that child on their back,'” Mitchell said.

“It’s best, and it’s a way to prevent SIDS,” she continued, referring to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

Mitchell’s mom, Veronica Pitt, remembers believing that babies belonged on their stomachs at bedtime. As a nurse, she now knows what doctors teach has changed over time.

“When I was coming up, there were a lot of babies that were dying from SIDS. In my community, most people believed that that’s the way the babies are supposed to lay. And then a lot of people had their children laying in their beds with them,” said Pitt.

Cynthia Figueroa, commissioner of the city’s Department of Human Services, acknowledged that — when it comes to raising babies — most people carry prescriptive narratives about what’s best, but also beliefs from family and culture.

“Sometimes, it’s hard to change what you’ve been told growing up or what you’ve been told maybe from your family history,” she said. The city’s campaign is not about “making a judgment.” Rather, officials are concerned with safety and the best interests of children.

In addition to putting babies to sleep on their backs, the campaign emphasizes they should only sleep in bed designed for a baby — never in the same bed as their parents, said Dr. Thomas Farley, the city’s health commissioner.

The crib should have no pillows or stuffed animals, he said. And he said the city will help families who can’t afford a crib or a collapsible playpen that doubles as a crib, known by the brand name Pack ‘N Play.

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