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More than twice as many Richmond children have died in 2021 as 2020, say Richmond Police

Person speaking into microphones
Lt. Erlan Marshall, who heads RPD’s Youth and Family Crimes Division, speaks about the uptick in infant deaths in Richmond at a press conference. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

There’s been an uptick in infant deaths in Richmond so far this year. There’ve been a total of 12 child deaths so far compared to just five in 2020. According to the Richmond Police Department, cosleeping was a factor in four of the infant deaths, which experts say is unsafe. 

“Cosleeping is the practice of an infant sleeping with a parent in the same bed. And this practice hasn't been recommended for quite some time, since we've been looking into the causes of SIDS or sudden infant death syndrome,” said Dr. Patrick McLaughlin, who works in the pediatric emergency department at the VCU Medical Center.

McLaughlin says while it’s hard to determine if the cause of death is suffocation in infants, he believes the rise in SIDS is because of cosleeping.

“What we found, at least in studies in the United States, is that it can increase the risk of SIDS or sudden infant death,” McLaughlin said. “So our recommendation is still to practice bonding with the child and infant and then to place them into a safe place where you don't increase the risk at all of sudden infant death.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics advises against bed-sharing, citing seven studies that suggest it elevates the risk of SIDS. Two recent studies found that for low-risk babies, cosleeping increases the risk of SIDS about three-fold, though it remains below 1-in-16,000.

Despite pediatricians’ advice, the practice grew four-fold between 1993 and 2015, which some experts say is because the U.S. approach to discouraging it is too heavy-handed.

According to data from Yale University’s Human Relations Area Files, nearly 40% of documented cultures worldwide practice cosleeping, though it’s less common in Western cultures. And while infants and mothers have been sleeping together for millennia, Peter Blair, a medical statistician at the University of Bristol, told NPR in 2018 that “the Western bed was not designed with the infant in mind.”

McLaughlin is urging parents not to sleep in the same bed as their children and to avoid placing children on soft bedding or next to stuffed animals.

“Avoid the stuffed animals and the nice soft sheets that you might get as a gift,” McLaughlin said. “That, of course, looks nice, but for the infant it could actually be dangerous.”

McLaughlin says it’s best to just use a single sheet on a firm, flat surface next to the bed like on a play mat or in a crib. If parents don’t have access to these items, he says they can ask their pediatrician to refer them to non-profits who can help.

“The best practice is: after you feed the child, instead of getting comfortable with the child in your own bed, is to place them down into a firm, flat surface, on a crib, bassinet or something called a play yard, which we used to refer to as a playpen, or a pack and play,” McLaughlin said.

Lt. Erlan Marshall, who heads RPD’s Youth and Family Crimes Division, says three additional infant deaths still under investigation involve cosleeping and sudden infant death syndrome although the exact cause of death is yet to be determined.

“We just know that the parent wakes up and the child is unresponsive,” Marshall told VPM News. “So either the child rolled onto the parent and suffocated or the parent rolled onto the child and suffocated the child that way. There’ve also been incidents where they [parents] put their own type of pillow in with the child and the child suffocates as a result of having that pillow smother the child.”

Two of the 12 children died from ingesting narcotics. Marshall says that if a parent finds a child who accidentally ingested narcotics and immediately seeks medical attention for them, police cannot prosecute parents criminally.

“We want families to know that they can call and ask for assistance,” Marshall said. “If a child is in distress, we are not here to just arrest people. We're here to save lives.”

Richmond Police Chief Gerald Smith urged parents to keep prescription drugs out of the sight and reach of children.

“We have to remember that there is no such thing as a childproof bottle of medication,” Smith said. “If a child works hard enough and long enough, they'll get into that bottle. They'll figure out a way. Children are curious and the little fingers have the dexterity to actually manipulate those bottles to actually see what is inside them.”

The Virginia Poison Center’s hotline can be reached 24/7 at 800-222-1222. If someone is unconscious, seizing or unable to breathe due to a potential poisoning, call 911.

Megan Pauly covers education and health care issues in the greater Richmond region.