Child deaths on the rise in Travis County

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Five children have died in the past six weeks in Travis County as a result of sharing a sleeping space with one or more adults.

Travis County Medical Examiner Dr. David Dolinak said no one should fall asleep while sharing the same sleep surface, such as a bed, couch, chair or the floor, as babies. The Medical Examiner’s Office said children are also at risk if there’s too much bedding, such as pillows, blankets, comforters and bumper pads, in the area the child is sleeping. Stuffed animals and other soft objects also put a child at risk for suffocation.

In February 2013, a KXAN investigation uncovered dozens of infant suffocation deaths in Central Texas. Investigator Shannon Wolfson talked to a family who lost a 6-month-old Aiden Lopez after he suffocated in his crib.

“My daughter came running in with him and his lifeless body — screaming for help” Tami Vanderwilt, Lopez’s grandmother, said fighting back tears. ” I tried my best to save him. I tried to initiate CPR — rescue breathing. Paramedics were called.

“He was STAR-Flighted out of here, but he just didn’t make it.”

Aiden suffocated against the bumper pad in his crib. He was breathing in his own carbon dioxide, but not getting any oxygen. The experience that devastated Vanderwilt is not uncommon.

There were 22 infant deaths classified as suffocation by the Travis County Medical Examiner in 2011. Ten of those deaths occurred in Travis County. In 2012, the number was up slightly to 23, with eight of those deaths happening in Travis County. Medical, law enforcement and forensic experts say all of these deaths were accidents, preventable, and caused by unsafe sleeping environments.

The American Academy of Pediatric’s recommends following the A-B-C of safe sleeping for babies:

  • Babies should sleep alone
  • Babies should sleep on their back
  • Babies should sleep in a safety-approved crib

Dr. Satish Chundru, deputy chief medical examiner for Travis County, performs autopsies on the smallest victims of suffocation.

“There’s a time period — it’s usually the first few months when the baby can’t turn on its own,” said Chundru. “What we’re seeing in these infant deaths is they’re dying between 1 to 2 months of age. Even up to 3 months.”

In Austin, police investigated 13 infant suffocation deaths in 2011 and 2012.

“We’ve had cases where infants have been placed, or babies have been placed, in sleeping environments with other siblings. And unfortunately, we’ve had siblings that have rolled over on the children, as well,” said Detective David Fugitt of the Austin Police Homicide Unit. “In many of these instances, they have a crib or they have a bassinet at the house that just was not being used.”

A look at some of the Austin case files on these deaths reveals babies have been placed in many different unsafe sleeping environments. One infant was sleeping in a laundry basket and suffocated in the blanket. But the majority of infant suffocation deaths happened when the baby was sleeping with a parent or sibling in an adult bed.

In fact, of the 43 infant suffocation deaths in Central Texas in the last two years, 23 of those happened while sharing a bed. Eight happened when the child was sleeping in an adult bed and 12 occurred in a crib, bassinet or portable crib.

“It’s a quiet death and you may not necessarily know that the child has been smothered,” Fugitt said.

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