Tackling the Race Gap in Infant Mortality

Tackling the Race Gap in Infant Mortality

It’s the stuff of nightmares – a parent goes to check on a sleeping infant, only to find that the worst has happened. Sleep-related infant deaths have been on the decline in the U.S. But new research shows the problem around Chicago is more complicated. African-American infants in Cook County are 12 times more likely to die of sleep-related causes than white babies. Researchers aren’t sure why – but that hasn’t stopped people from trying to do something about it.

Jenifer Cartland is a professional number cruncher. But when she uncovered the huge disparity in sleep-related infant deaths, she had to run it by a few people.

CARTLAND: Because I wanted to make sure it was accurate before I would go out with something that was so shocking.

Cartland runs the Child Health Data Lab at Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago. And unfortunately, she didn’t find any math errors. The numbers aren’t huge – but they’re unevenly spread.

CARTLAND: We have about 90 sleep-related deaths in Cook County each year for infants, and the vast majority of those are African American.

We’re talking about deaths from three things: Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, or SIDS, accidental suffocation and undetermined sleep-related causes.

CARTLAND: A really big part of that gap is something that most of us think could be prevented by putting kids in safer sleep situations. Now, we look how small that segment is for whites. Could we get that small for other races, too? I’d like to take that challenge.

A few people are taking up that challenge – including a mom from Crystal Lake, named Nancy Maruyama.

MARUYAMA: When I tell people that for every white baby that dies from SIDS we have 12 African American babies that die, they can’t believe it, and they’re outraged. And we believe they should be outraged! Because when you look at infant mortality, that is kind of a gauge to overall health of a community. So that tells us a lot about that community.

Maruyama is a nurse, and she works for the organization, SIDS of Illinois. A few times a week she hits the road to visit new and expectant moms, especially in low-income neighborhoods.

MARUYAMA: I’ve been to a number of homes that are really like one room, maybe five or six children, and they’re sleeping on two or three twin mattresses pushed together.

Research shows the safest place for a baby to sleep is alone in a crib. So one solution is just to give away cribs. It sounds simple, but no one in Illinois was really doing it. So SIDS of Illinois got a small grant, and now Nancy Maruyama fills the trunk of her Prius with portable cribs for qualified parents.

MARUYAMA: Her little baby was born early, has been sleeping with mom.
We’re at a two-story apartment block in Chicago’s South Shore neighborhood.

MARUYAMA: (knock knock knock) Hi, I’m looking for Miss Bates? I have a crib for her.

Maruyama doesn’t just deliver cribs. She talks to the parents about safe sleep practices.

MARUYAMA: Now pull it up just a little bit and down. There you go! See, that’s how it locks.

Tyesha Bates sets down 10-week old Jermaine in the crib. He fusses for a second, shakes a tiny fist, and then drifts back off to sleep.

BATES: I’m glad, thank you, because he was sleeping too wild. He like to roll over.

MARUYAMA: You know, I think that you’ll be able to sleep better, because you won’t have to worry, where is he?

Jermaine’s grandpa, Cleo Lane, is sitting on the fold-out couch.

LANE: I got about 14-to-16 grandkids now.

Cleo says some of those grandkids slept in cribs, some slept with parents. But he says he’s a believer in the crib.

LANE: Cleo: Well, I see it as more safer. And a child won’t disappear.

SPITZER: Have you always been able to get a crib when you needed one?

LANE: A few times.

SPITZER: But not every time?

LANE: Not every time.

Nancy Maruyama says she’s delivered about 70 cribs so far. She says the work is deeply rewarding and personal. Maruyama lost her own son, four-month-old Brendan, to SIDS in 1985. She says reaching other moms is a way to honor her son.

MARUYAMA: I’m really eager to keep in touch with her, and when the baby gets to be close to a year old, just celebrate it with her, because that’s an important milestone. We have too many babies that don’t make it to their first birthday. So it’s really a celebration.

Infant mortality relates in complex ways to a community’s health. So there are a lot of factors behind Cook County’s huge race gap in sleep-related deaths. But Maruyama says at the very least, all children deserve a safe place to sleep.