Health officials: Clallam infant mortality rate driven by unsafe sleep practices

County’s average is twice the state rate

Clallam County has the highest rate of infant mortality in the state, and local health officials have said unsafe sleep is the major contributing factor.

Clallam has a rate of 8.1 deaths per 1,000 live births compared to the state average of 4.7, county representatives recently noted.

The Clallam County Department of Health, in partnership with the Clallam County Coroner’s Office, found that 64 percent of infant deaths throughout the past decades were sleep-related deaths.

The medical term for the deaths is Sudden Unexplained Infant Deaths (SUID) — a bit of a misnomer, county health officials said, because these deaths are not unexplained. In most cases, a thorough investigation shows the children suffocated.

“Babies before the age of 6 months old don’t have the neck strength to turn their head or roll over,” Clallam County Health Officer Dr. Allison Berry Unthank said, “so anything that gets in the way of their mouth, from a blanket to a stuffed toy or bottle, can cause them to suffocate.”

Statewide, only about 15 percent of infant deaths are caused by SUID. In Clallam County, however, county officials are concerned about the disproportionately large number of infant deaths from what they call a “preventable disease.”

County health officials highlight the American Academy of Pediatrics’ list of ways to reduce the risk of Sudden Unexplained Infant Death:

• Put babies to bed on their back.

• Have babies sleep separately on a firm, flat sleep surface, such as a crib.

• Keep other objects (stuffed animals, blankets, bottles) out of the sleep area so they cannot inadvertently block the baby’s breathing.

Rates of SUID have dramatically decreased nationwide since the 1990s when the American Academy of Pediatrics launched their safe sleep campaign, encouraging safe sleep environments for children to reduce their risk of suffocation.

But local health officials note those gains have started to level off, and that in Clallam County infant mortality is increasing.

“The most important takeaway from this data is that these deaths are preventable,” Unthank said. “Every parent and family member in this community has the power to keep our kids safe by practicing safe sleep.”

For more information about safe sleep, talk to a doctor or call the Clallam County Department of Health at 360-417-2276.

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