Davidson County is marking a steep drop in infant sleep deaths. The number of infants who suffocated while sleeping dropped 29 percent in one year. So called "sleep-related deaths" dipped to 15 in 2016, representing one in five of all infant deaths.
Anytime a baby dies, there's an official review. As part of the process, Metro Health's D'Yuanna Allen-Robb sometimes debriefs with devastated parents. Either they were sleeping in the same bed, the child was on her stomach or something in the crib covered his face.
"They are absolutely heart-breaking stories for families that either did not know the latest information about how to sleep their infant safely, or they needed extra support," says Allen-Robb, who is the city's director of maternal, child and adolescent health.
Many larger families just don't have enough room for a baby to sleep alone, Allen-Robb says. That's why the health department has been offering bassinets to families who are struggling to find a place for the baby to sleep. But most of the credit is going to a five-year-old marketing campaign that targets young parents as they leave the hospital. Nationally, it's called the ABCs of safe sleep — alone, on the baby's back and in a crib free of loose items.
Allen-Robb says the most powerful message, though, has come from parents who lost a child. Some have volunteered to share their story, saying they don't want the same tragedy to haunt another family.
"Whatever they can do to help, they want to," she says.
Nationally, roughly 3,500 infants a year are lost to sleep-related death before their first birthday. Statewide, the figures jump around from year to year, but the most recent stats from 2015 show 142 sleep deaths in Tennesseee, up from 99 the year before.
Public health officials have focused on sleep deaths in part because most of them are entirely preventable and they are contributing to Tennessee's elevated infant mortality rate, which is considerably higher than the national rate. Local hospitals have been focused on the issue as well.
By far, the lead contributing factor involves unsafe bedding. In 2016, Prevent Child Abuse Tennessee launched a program in 14 counties to offer so-called baby boxes or newborn nests to families where case workers found unsafe sleep environments.