The chilling antics of the polar vortex left Central Texas temperatures far below normal this winter. Texans bundled up to stay warm and cozy during a winter so cold it broke records. The unusual temperatures may have led to an unusually high number of infant deaths in the first weeks of 2014, as parents and older kids snuggled up with sleeping babies to keep warm.
Dr. David Dolinak reports five infants died during January and early February and suggests their deaths might have been avoided if someone sharing a sleep surface with a baby would stay awake while the baby’s there. Dolinak, the medical examiner for Travis County, also issued the reminder to area parents that soft bedding, stuffed animals, and bumper pads in a crib put the baby at risk of suffocation, too.
During the first few months of its life, a baby is too weak to turn its head or body. When its face snuggles into soft bedding and other soft objects in its crib, it can’t change position when its own expelled carbon dioxide accumulates in the soft pocket formed by the baby’s head and face. Awake or sleeping, it breathes this toxic air instead of oxygen and soon suffocates.
When the baby sleeps with a parent or older, bigger sibling, the baby can become trapped underneath the bigger person as s/he shifts during sleep. Suffocation can happen before the older sleeper wakes up. It can be difficult to tell the difference between a sleeping baby and one who has suffocated, especially in the dark and while still groggy from one’s own sleep.
Travis County, where Austin is located, is surrounded by less-populated rural counties that rely on the city’s medical facilities for the most critical care. Babies who experience suffocation in these surrounding counties are often transported by air ambulance to Austin. In recent years, infant deaths due to suffocation when the weather was mild included:
- 2011: 22 total, 10 from Travis County alone
- 2012: 23 total, 8 from Travis County
- 23 of these infant deaths involved shared sleeping
- 8 of them involved sleeping with a parent
- 12 occurred in a proper baby’s bed
The American Academy of Pediatrics uses and A-B-C approach to help parents remember safe sleeping arrangements for infants:
- A: Alone
- B: On its Back
- C: In a Crib that meets safety standards
The Travis County medical examiner and law enforcement and forensics teams who investigate these deaths describe them all as preventable accidents caused by sleeping in an unsafe environment. Deputy Chief Medical examiner Dr. Satish Chundru says, “it’s usually the first few months when the baby can’t turn on its own...they’re dying between 1 to 2 months of age. Even up to 3 months.”
- Ayala-Talavera, Monica, and Shannon Wolfson. “Child deaths on the rise in Travis County.” KXAN. LIN Television Corp. Feb 20, 2014. Web. Feb 28, 2014.
- “AAP Expands Guidelines for Infant Sleep Safety and SIDS Risk Reduction.” American Academy of Pediatrics. American Academy of Pediatrics. Oct 18, 2011. Web. Feb 28, 2014.