Monday, December 11, 2023

Unsafe sleep environments remain deadly for Hampton Roads infants

Alone. Back. Crib: The ABCs of safe sleep.

Unsafe sleeping environments continue to be a deadly problem in the Eastern Region of Virginia and in Hampton Roads.

The Eastern Region includes the Hampton Roads cities of Virginia Beach, Norfolk, Hampton, Newport News, Chesapeake, and Portsmouth.

Last year (FY 2017), of the 42 cases investigated by social services agencies that involved the death of a child, 18 of them involved a child in an unsafe sleep environment.

An unsafe sleep environment occurs when a child, usually an infant, is allowed to sleep any place, or on any surface, that is not intended for infant sleeping, or with items in their bed that shouldn’t be there, such as blankets, pillows, stuffed animals, or baby dolls.

In Hampton Roads during FY 2017, there were 24 “unfounded” child fatalities, with nearly half of them, 13, involving unsafe sleep environments. An unfounded case means no abuse or neglect was found to have occurred. In the cases involving abuse or neglect, three deaths were attributed to an unsafe sleep environment.

But the problem isn’t simply limited to Hampton Roads.

“This is a big issue across the entire country,” said Betty Wade Coyle, executive director emeritus at Champions for Children: Prevent Child Abuse Hampton Roads.

Not all of the deaths due to unsafe sleep environments involved abuse or neglect. Education and awareness is needed across all socio-economic levels.

Babies should sleep alone, on their back, and in a crib (Southside Daily photo/Courtesy of
Babies should sleep alone, on their back, and in a crib. (HNNDaily photo/Courtesy of

“I think it’s related somewhat to poverty,” Coyle said. “People often don’t have proper cribs. They do their best, but they’re transient and don’t have proper places for their babies to sleep.”

In a recent report by the Eastern Region Child Fatality Review Team, poverty as well as drug use were cited as contributing factors in child neglect and abuse situations.

Another issue, Coyle said, which is often related to both poverty and drug use, is the fact that grandparents are more and more often becoming primary caregivers. The rules for safe sleep environments have changed over the years, with Sudden Unexplained Infant Deaths actually declining by one-third when back sleeping in an empty crib became the norm.

A bright spot in a tragic situation is that although there were 18 deaths due to unsafe sleeping environments, that number is down from 29 in FY 2016, and 21 in FY 2015.

During the recent presentation of the review team’s report, Dr. Michelle Clayton, a member of the fatality review team and the medical director of the Child Abuse Program at the Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters, said many of the deaths are preventable. The team should continue education efforts in the region, she said, such as education for parents on safe swaddling.

“When we look at the at the past several years we can see that this (unsafe sleep environments) is an ongoing trend,” Clayton said. “Our hope is that the message about safe sleep is getting out into the community.”

In FY 2017 there were 16 deaths in Hampton Roads that were attributed to unsafe sleep environments (Southside Daily photo/Courtesy of the National Institutes of Health)
In FY 2017 there were 16 deaths in Hampton Roads that were attributed to unsafe sleep environments. (HNNDaily photo/Courtesy of the National Institutes of Health)

Coyle said parents who have questions or concerns about their child’s sleep environment can call a toll-free help line, 800-CHILDREN (800-244-5373).

She said a good practice for parents and caregivers to follow, which can be found online, is the ABCs of safe sleep.

John Mangalonzo
John Mangalonzo
John Mangalonzo ( is the managing editor of Local Voice Media’s Virginia papers – WYDaily (Williamsburg), Southside Daily (Virginia Beach) and HNNDaily (Hampton-Newport News). Before coming to Local Voice, John was the senior content editor of The Bellingham Herald, a McClatchy newspaper in Washington state. Previously, he served as city editor/content strategist for USA Today Network newsrooms in St. George and Cedar City, Utah. John started his professional journalism career shortly after graduating from Lyceum of The Philippines University in 1990. As a rookie reporter for a national newspaper in Manila that year, John was assigned to cover four of the most dangerous cities in Metro Manila. Later that year, John was transferred to cover the Philippine National Police and Armed Forces of the Philippines. He spent the latter part of 1990 to early 1992 embedded with troopers in the southern Philippines as they fought with communist rebels and Muslim extremists. His U.S. journalism career includes reporting and editing stints for newspapers and other media outlets in New York City, California, Texas, Iowa, Utah, Colorado and Washington state.

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