Community Medical launches program to stem sudden infant deaths across Montana

Liz Montgomery, executive director of the Inland Northwest SIDS Foundation, left, and Olivia Jagelski, a neonatal intensive care nurse at Community Medical Center, demonstrate the proper method of swaddling an infant. The hospital launched the state’s first certified safe sleep program for new parents. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Over the past five years, 89 babies across Montana died from sleep-related accidents, placing the state near the top in its rate of sudden unexpected infant deaths.

Calling it an unnecessary tragedy, the staff at Community Medical Center on Monday unveiled an intensive new program intended to teach parents safe sleep habits and how to properly tuck their infant in for a nap.

In doing so, the hospital became the first in Montana to implement the safe sleep program through the Inland Northwest SIDS Foundation and Cribs for Kids.

“After recently having babies that we spent months taking care of to make sure they went home bigger, healthier and stronger, only to then die of a sleep-related death, we decided we needed to make a change here at CMC,” said Dr. Bonnie Stephens. “Well-meaning parents often put their babies at risk by providing an unsafe sleep environment that can obstruct their airway.”

Stephens, a neonatologist at Community Medical Center, stated the tragic figures surrounding unexpected infant death, or SUID. Nationally, more than 3,500 infants die before the age of 1 each year due to sleep-related accidents.

In Montana, the SUID rate is nearly twice the national average, with roughly 17 babies dying each year from suffocation while sleeping. It remains the leading cause of death for those younger than 1, with most deaths occurring between 2 and 4 months of age.

“We know that infants that sleep on their stomachs have a 40 percent higher chance of SUID,” said Stephens. “Over 50 percent of sleep-related deaths occur unintentionally in a parent’s bed. It only takes five pounds of pressure for five minutes to suffocate an infant. That could be your hand flopping over on your baby during sleep.”

To help educate parents, the staff at Community Medical Center spent the past year working with the Inland Northwest SIDS Foundation and Cribs for Kids to implement the state’s first safe-sleep program.

On Monday, the hospital also accepted Montana’s first Gold Safe Sleep Champion certification from Cribs for Kids. The national safe-sleep certification recognizes hospitals that demonstrate a commitment to reducing infant-related deaths across Montana, Washington and Idaho.

“We provide education on safe infant sleep practices to professionals and families on how to keep our babies safe during sleep according to the American Academy of Pediatrics,” said Liz Montgomery, executive director of the Inland Northwest SIDS Foundation. “We also provide grief support services to any family affected by a pregnancy, infant or child loss.”

Montgomery and Olivia Jagelski, a neonatal intensive care nurse at Community, demonstrated the proper methods of putting an infant down for a nap. Crib bumpers, pillows, stuffed animals and blankets are no-no, they said, as is tummy sleeping.

Placing an infant in an adult bed is also strongly discouraged.

“We saw an increase in SIDS deaths in our community and we looked into it and realized Montana had nearly twice the SIDS rate of the national average,” said Jagelski, a neonatal intensive care nurse at Community. “I think education is a huge part. That’s the primary focus for this program.”

It is, they said, the A, B, Cs of property infant sleep – alone, on their back and in a crib with a firm mattress. For the roughly 1,300 babies born at Community each year, it’s good for parents to know before they head home with their newborn.

“We get too many families who had their infants die in unsafe sleep situations and just didn’t know the proper habits,” said Montgomery. “Every family that leaves here will get that education on how to keep a baby safe during sleep.”

Not long ago, all unexplained infant deaths were classified as SIDS, though the health care industry now tracks deaths under SUID due to accidental suffocation. As a result, the SIDS rate has declined nationally while the SUID rate has increased, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

“Losing a baby due to an unsafe sleep environment is traumatizing for families,” said Jagelski. “Death of any kind is traumatic, but preventable death can be especially difficult for families, as well as our nurses and doctors. It’s something that stays with you.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com