Hampden DA: 6 accidental newborn deaths in Hampden County in 2017; parents urged to use caution at bed time

By Patrick Johnson, The Republican

Photos By Dave Roback, The Republican

In a presentation for the local media at Baystate’s Children’s Specialty Center, Gulluni and Dr. Andrew Balder advised parents to use caution before they consider sleeping with a newborn.

“The death of one child is a family tragedy. The death of more than one child is a community tragedy,” said Baystate pediatrician Andrew Balder, medical director of the Mason Square Health Center.

Gulluni said the number of infant deaths so far in 2017 basically matches the yearly average for accidental infant deaths for all of Hampden, Hampshire and Franklin counties — and there are still 5 months remaining in the year.

All of them involved co-sleeping arrangements, where the parent brought the baby into their bed, and the baby was accidentally asphyxiated as they slept. All of the cases were found to be accidental deaths and no charges have been filed.

“This is an alarming trend,” Gulluni said. “A sad, sad trend.”

Gulluni said he was made aware of the trend by state police detectives assigned to his office who are to responded to all unattended deaths in Hampden County outside of Springfield.

Three of the six deaths occurred in June and July in West Springfield, Chicopee and Holyoke. The six deaths cut across all ethnic and socio-economic lines, he said.

State police Capt. Chris Wilcox, who is assigned to the Hampden DA’s detective unit, said the only common element when detectives arrived at each scene was that the deceased newborn was found in the parental bed.

The investigations are very difficult, he said, because detectives have to determine if death is an accident or homicide, and have to question parents who are destroyed by grief.

“It’s a very difficult thing to do,” he said.

He said the recent case of a 3-month old who was found unresponsive at a West Springfield motel and later died was one of the cases.

Gulluni said his office reached out to Baystate to call attention to the issue in the hope of preventing future tragedies.

“I want to emphasize how important this is to protect babies in the region. New parents and prospective parents need to pay attention,” he said. “Hopefully we can end these kinds of tragic, avoidable deaths going forward.”

Balder said Baystate recommends that parents to not bring newborns into the parental bed because it is inviting tragedy.

There have been cases where the parent has rolled over and either crushed or suffocated the child without knowing, he said.

But there have also been cases where newborns have died despite no evidence of suffocation or blocked airway, he said.

Studies have shown that in small subset of newborns, the extended close contact with a parent may somehow affect the quality of the air, he said. In those rare cases, that can be enough to signal the baby’s brain to slow down breathing functions.

There are no tests to determine which newborns are susceptible to this, so, from a prevention standpoint, “we have to assume they all are,” he said.

Gulluni cited statistics that said nationally, there are 900 cases a year where a baby is accidentally suffocated while sleeping with a parent.

Balder said the rule of thumb Baystate recommends to parents of newborns is the rule of ABCs of safe sleep: the baby should sleep alone, on his or her back, and in a crib.

The crib should be placed next to the parental bed, he said.

And it should be empty of any bumpers, extra blankets, stuffed animals or anything that can suffocate the child.

Mothers who are nursing should bring the baby into bed to feed but then return the baby to the crib when finished.

Balder said new parents are typically advised about the dangers of co-sleeping before the baby and mother are discharged from the hospital.

But the message can get lost as both parents are often overwhelmed by other issues of newborn care.

 He said there have been studies that show it can be effective to periodically remind parents of safe-sleep issues for the child’s first six months, perhaps by something as simple as sending a text message reminder to the parents.
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