Quilt for the baby can be lethal Bedding that suffocates believed the cause of many 'SIDS' cases

July 05, 1998|By Diana K. Sugg | Diana K. Sugg,SUN STAFF

The plush, pastel quilts and pillows offer parents a warm, safe place for their babies to sleep, but more and more they are suspected of suffocating hundreds of babies a year across the country -- babies originally thought to have died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), concerned physicians and advocacy groups are stepping up efforts to warn the public about the potential dangers of blankets and fluffy materials.

But they are battling tradition, a big business and parents who misunderstand or ignore their advice.

Adding to the problem is the daunting task of educating the annual crop of about 4 million new parents and millions of child-care providers, whose turnover rate is 40 percent.

The CPSC did the key study -- originally released in 1995 and republished in June in a pediatrics journal -- linking bedding to suffocations.

Probing infant deaths in 17 sites across the country, investigators found that as many as one-third of the approximately 6,000 babies who die a year of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) are found face down, with their noses and mouths covered in soft bedding such as sheepskins.

CPSC Chairman Ann Brown says these babies may have simply suffocated, and her agency is working to put warning labels on infant pillows and comforters this year.

The CPSC has written letters to hundreds of manufacturers of the bedding, asking them not to display the quilts and pillows in cribs, so the public won't be misled.

The Baltimore-based SIDS Alliance, a national group, is teaming up with a child-care organization to inform 250,000 providers nationwide, since a third of SIDS deaths occur while babies are in child care.

Even Tipper Gore, the vice president's wife, has been spreading the message. "Everyone who cares for infants, from parents to baby sitters to child-care providers, needs to be aware of the danger of too many blankets or pillows in the crib and take appropriate steps," Gore said in a statement to The Sun. "This will reduce the risk of SIDS."

The Stevensville tragedy

In the much publicized case of two infants who died at the home of a Stevensville day-care provider last month, investigators are still wrestling with the question of whether the baby boys, who were sleeping on an adult bed under a blanket, may have accidentally suffocated.

The state's medical examiner, Dr. John E. Smialek, a national expert on SIDS, has not yet reached a conclusion.

Maryland's Department of Human Resources requires licensed child-care providers to attend training classes on safety issues. The agency also sends out a quarterly newsletter, including one last fall that highlighted the bedding recommendations.

While there are various other efforts around the country to teach people about the soft bedding -- particularly in birthing classes and hospitals -- stores such as the Babies 'R' Us outlet in Catonsville showcase dozens of cribs, decked out with comforters and bumpers in yellow gingham and Mickey Mouse styles.

Industry analysts estimate that about 3.2 million babies less than a year old have these color-coordinated bedding sets, including about 2.5 million matching pillows.

"Parents want to put their babies to sleep on a cloud. They think they're expressing their tremendous love for the infant by putting them to sleep on something that looks soft and comforting. Yet, that is absolutely the opposite of what needs to happen," said Phipps Cohe, spokeswoman for the SIDS Alliance.

Safe if used correctly

The alliance is working with the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association on bedding safety issues. That group's formal position is that the baby bedding on the market is already safe -- "as long as it's used correctly."

The public has apparently gotten the message that babies should be put to sleep on their backs.

In 1992, 70 percent of babies went to sleep on their stomachs, but that dropped to just 20 percent last year, according to the SIDS Alliance. At the same time, the number of SIDS deaths has dropped by 38 percent.

But the second part of the recommendation seems to have gotten lost.

Babies should be put in a crib, on a firm, flat mattress. Until they are 8 months old, they should not be put on top of comforters, water beds, bean bags, stuffed toys or pillows.

Some experts even advise against putting comforters over the infants. They say if bumpers -- thick cushions lining the insides of cribs -- are used, they should be thin and tied tightly to the crib.

Yet medical examiners are finding babies face-down in sheepskins, wedged into thick, lacy bumpers, or at the ends of cribs under blankets.

Some infant deaths may be linked to sleeping on puffy couches, down comforters on adult beds and other places outside the crib. Squirming babies may get caught between adult beds and walls.

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