Over six weeks starting in December, six babies in Baltimore City died as they slept.
All of the babies were in an unsafe sleep environment – sleeping in a bed or a couch (not in a crib) with an adult or another child (when they should have been sleeping alone).
“This is a startling number of deaths in a very short period of time,” says the Johns Hopkins Center for Communication Programs’ Tina Suliman, MSPH. “What parents are going through is heartbreaking. And what is even more upsetting is that sleep-related deaths are preventable.”
Since the end of 2009 – when a record number of babies died in their sleep (27) – CCP has worked with the Baltimore City Health Department and many other partners on a safe sleep program as part of B’more for Healthy Babies (BHB). BHB uses a combination of community outreach, provider education, mass media and policy support to decrease the number of sleep-related deaths in the city.
CCP leads the communication component of the project, using research and proven frameworks to develop messages about the safest ways to protect babies as they sleep. The messages have been on billboards, in doctors’ offices and hospitals, on TV, on the side of city buses. They have touted the ABCDs of safe sleep: Babies should sleep alone, on their back and in a crib in a house where people don’t smoke. In 2016, Baltimore were down to seven sleep-related deaths, a record low.
But as a result of the recent spate of deaths, CCP has kicked into high gear and quickly developed a new social media campaign and toolkit: #NotOneMoreBaltimore. CCP has asked the many partners of B’more for Healthy Babies to use the hashtag – and reinforce the ABCDs of safe sleep – on their social media channels
At the same time, B’more for Healthy Babies has sent emails to 800 health care providers in the city and letters to every hospital and pediatric clinic reminding them to reinforce how simple it is to prevent sleep-related infant deaths.
Sleep-related deaths are the leading cause of infant death among healthy babies after they are discharged from the hospital. In 2017, 17 babies in Baltimore died in their sleep; another 13 died in 2018. This is what makes the recent deaths so difficult.
Of the 13 babies who died in 2018, none was sleeping in a crib, most were sharing a bed, several were not placed on their backs and most were not living in a smoke-free home.
“We know we can do better because we have done better in the past,” says Amber Summers, PhD, who directs CCP’s Baltimore programs.
Early qualitative data gathered for the safe sleep campaign found that while people often knew the right way to put their babies down for a nap or the night, they did not perceive that sleep-related death was a real risk. So CCP created messages that increased the understanding of the risks while also making clear how easily a caregiver could mitigate the risk.
The CCP team says the new #NotOneMoreBaltimore social media campaign is the best way to quickly disseminate those messages again.
“As more and more people turn to social media for health information, we can harness that power to reach as many families as possible with evidence-based safe sleep information,” says Suliman, who leads communication development for B’more for Healthy Babies.
She says she knows that parents want what is best for their babies. It’s just that sometimes it’s hard to do the right thing in the moment.
“If we follow what the evidence tells us, we can keep this from happening to more families,” she says.