Nearly every other day, a baby dies in Texas while sleeping with an adult or older child, marking an alarming phenomenon that causes more child deaths than accidental drownings, state officials said Wednesday.
The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services found that 170 children, nearly all younger than 6 months old, died while "co-sleeping" with a parent, sibling or older caregiver in the 2008 fiscal year. Authorities did not release the causes of death, but experts say suffocation is the most common cause of such fatalities.
"This is a very new trend," said Patrick Crimmins, a spokesman for the agency that conducted the state's first study of such deaths. "It's virtually unknown to the public."
In the first 11 months of 2008, there were 78 cases of child deaths caused by drowning, he said, less than half the number of kids who died while co-sleeping with someone older in the 12-month 2008 fiscal year that ended Aug. 31. The trend continued with another 28 such deaths in September and October of this year.
Officials stopped short of urging parents not to sleep with their children but said they should be aware of the risks.
"We don't presume to know the causes of deaths in all these cases," said Joyce James, an assistant commissioner at the protective services department. "We aren't telling parents they should never sleep with their children, but we are urging parents to take precautions to create a safe sleeping environment for infants at all times."
More than half of the cases involved kids who died before they were 3 months old. About a third were between 3 and 7 months old. The oldest case involved a 22-month-old child, the study found.
"The younger the child, the greater the risk something could go wrong," James said.
Case records released by the protective services department describe some of the tragedies. In El Paso, a 4-month old baby died in March after his mother put the baby to bed with her, a 6-year-old sister and another child.
"The baby was found with the pillow in his face," the report said.
In Baylor County, a 6-month-old baby girl died Sept. 14 while sleeping with her mother. The baby had been "found between the bed and a wall." In another case, in San Marcos, a 4-month-old boy died in July while sleeping in the bed between his parents, who "had been drinking and smoking marijuana."
While it was the first time Texas has conducted a study on such deaths, officials in other states and Canada have also warned about the risks associated with the practice.
In New York, authorities launched a public campaign this year to discourage co-sleeping. The campaign slogan is "Babies Sleep Safest Alone."
"If an adult or child rolls over on a baby, the baby can be hurt or even suffocated," according to literature in the New York campaign. "Sleeping with a child can be dangerous, especially if you drink, use drugs, are overweight, or sleep on a couch."
Besides warning about using alcohol or drugs, Texas authorities recommend adults avoid sleeping with a small child on a couch, sofa, waterbed or chair. They also warn against using soft bedding or other materials that could suffocate an infant.
James McKenna, an anthropology professor at the University of Notre Dame, said co-sleeping can have a positive benefit by fostering greater attachment. But he said that can also be accomplished by placing the baby's bed next to the mother's, and he warned that bed-sharing should be avoided by non-breastfeeders and women who smoked while pregnant.
"Like all sleeping arrangements, they need to know what are the ways to maximize safety," said McKenna, author of the book "Sleeping With Your Baby: A Parent's Guide to Co-Sleeping."