Sleep safety campaign means fewer infant deaths in Md.

The number of unexpected infant deaths dropped 43 percent in Maryland as a result of the state's "Safe Sleep" initiative. (Thinkstock)

WASHINGTON — More young lives are being saved in Maryland because parents are learning how to put their babies to sleep correctly.

In 2007, 302 babies died unexpectedly in the state;  in 2013, 171 died — a 43 percent decline.

“When we looked at the data, we had far too many kids in unsafe sleeping arrangements,” says Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, a pediatrician who heads the Maryland Department of Health and Human Hygiene.

The numbers track deaths resulting from accidents, homicides and sudden infant death syndrome. The decline tells a big story about what can happen in Maryland when public health officials use the stories of real people to make a point.

The state, along with community groups and the Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health, turned to a group of mothers who had suffered an unspeakable loss, and asked them to go before a camera. The result was a series of hard-hitting advertisements that started airing in 2011.

The parents, often with tears in their eyes, discuss the circumstances surrounding the death of their children.

“That morning he was in the bed with us,” remembers one mom, “and when I woke up and looked over at him, he just wasn’t breathing.”

“When I woke up at 4:30, he was gone,” recalls another. “We found him dead in the middle of our bed.”

The goal, Sharfstein says, is to convince others to put their kids to sleep in ways that keep them safe: “We really emphasized the message that babies sleep best alone — on their back, and in a crib.”

The campaign focused largely on low-income families in Baltimore City, where there’s an estimated two preventable infant deaths per month.  But the effects of “Safe Sleep” have been felt around the state.

“We have seen a significant improvement in sleeping practices and a decline in sleep related fatalities,” Sharfstein says.

He adds that the improved practices not only helped the state lower its infant mortality rate in recent years but has reduced the racial disparity in the mortality rate. At one point, it was much higher in the African-American community.

Watch the “Safe Sleep” campaign video below.

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