Both public health and private campaign efforts have aimed at reducing the number of infant deaths in Milwaukee due to co-sleeping. But the problem hasn’t gone away – babies still die, and research by UW-Milwaukee nursing professor Jennifer Doering indicates at least a quarter of the women she studies are still co-sleeping with their infants.
She says public awareness campaigns about co-sleeping and asking parents to place babies on their backs to sleep have been effective, reducing the incidence of SIDS by 53 percent since 1992.
But even as those efforts continue, since 2005, there's been a leveling off of the SIDS rate.
"We're just not getting much bang for our buck, so to speak," she says. "We're putting more effort into the issue, but we're not reducing the death rate, which to me indicates that we need a new approach."
So in tackling the challenge of co-sleeping deaths, Doering decided to take another tactic - devising a device that would keep an infant safe in a co-sleeping situation. To do that, she enlisted the help of engineering professor Naira Campbell-Kyureghyan. The result is something called the Infant Sleep Pod.
Doering says the Pod addresses the two main reasons why babies die in co-sleeping situations. The first is overlaying - a parent may roll over onto a baby or pay a limb across the baby's face, smothering the baby. The Pod is large enough and firm enough to prevent this overlaying.
The second reason for co-sleeping deaths is when a blanket or pillow falls on a baby's face. The baby will then rebreathe the CO2 it exhales, resulting in death. The Pod has a face protection bridge, which would maintain access to fresh air. It also has sensors to alarm - and awaken- parents when such incidents occur.
The design for a baby Pod is innovative, but says the idea of personal protective equipment is common. She points to gear workers wear in different industries to protect themselves against injury. Plus, Doering says, we already having protective equipment for babies that we consider standard.
"We adapt other environments to babies’ needs," she says. "For instance, car seats. You know, we don’t put a baby into a car – which is an adult environment – without personal protective equipment. And a car seat is PPE for babies. So why wouldn’t we do that in a sleep environment, as well?"
That's why Campbell-Kyureghyan doesn't anticipate a lot of skepticism over the Infant Sleep Pod, even as the national conversation about co-sleeping can be controversial.
"I think the availability of the Sleep Pod will not lead to increase in co-sleeping," Campbell-Kyureghyan says. "Instead it is just a recognition that education and rules cannot totally eliminate the problem."
The Infant Sleep Pod's design is still in the development stage, but the two researchers hope to sell it for a reasonably affordable price, as co-sleeping is often a problem in lower income demographics. That's posed a unique challenge for Campbell-Kyureghyan's students, who have been tasked with providing the utmost safety with less expensive materials.
In the meantime, she and Doering are applying for a provisional patent to protect their idea while they gather data on the Pod and complete its design.