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Pennsylvania's York County sees rise in infant deaths

A doctor wears a stethoscope around his neck.
Jeff Roberson
In this Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012 file photo, a doctor wears a stethoscope around his neck as he tends to patients in his office.

York County is dealing with what health professionals say is a significant rise in infant deaths.

The county has investigated six deaths of children 12 months old or younger so far this year, York County Coroner Pam Gay said. That number is already double what the county typically would see in a year. Five of the infants were two months old or younger.

In one case, police charged the mother of a seven-week old baby, and the woman’s boyfriend, with third-degree homicide and related offenses. The child died of hypothermia and methamphetamine toxicity, FOX 43 reported in May.

Start your morning with today's news on Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania.

While that’s the only death so far that has led to criminal charges, Gay said in all six cases, the coroner’s office identified at least one factor that was out of compliance with American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines.

WellSpan Health Dr. Michael Goodstein serves on the academy’s infant safety task force.

He said sudden infant death syndrome, or SIDs, may be a factor in the deaths. SIDs is a term for when a child dies, often while in a sleep environment, without any clear explanation for the death.

There are several risk factors associated with sudden infant deaths, Goodstein noted. They include tobacco use in the household, premature birth, low birth weight and problems with how a baby regulates its breathing or temperature.

He said parents can reduce their baby’s risk significantly by making sure the baby sleeps alone, on its back and is not overheated or surrounded by items such as pillows, comforters or bumper pads that could suffocate or strangle it.

He said most parents are aware of these best practices because hospitals teach new parents these techniques before they are released. He suspects parents who are fatigued, stressed or distracted are less likely to follow those guidelines.

He said recent research shows infant deaths are more likely to happen later in the night, when a parent may be exhausted from having woken up repeatedly.

“At the beginning of the evening, parents often do a very good job with the safe sleep environment,” he said, “but as they get more fatigued and tired when the baby is waking up during the night, they tend to follow less and less of the recommendation.”

Goodstein emphasized when babies should sleep alone, on their backs, with a tight fitting sheet, their risk of death decreases by more than 50 percent.

He urges pregnant women not to smoke since it is one of the greatest risk factors for infant death.

Read more from our partners, WITF.