New DCF Commissioner emphasizes importance of safe sleep for babies
Rocky Hill — The social worker is visiting the mother on another issue, but skillfully turns the conversation to sleep safety for the infant in the mother’s arms.
“So, would I be able to see where the baby sleeps?” the social workers asks.
The conversation was part of a simulated training exercise that Vannessa Dorantes, the new commissioner of the Department of Children and Families, used Monday to get the word out about safe sleeping for infants.
“According to the Center for Disease Control, approximately 3,500 infants die each year in the United States in unsafe sleep environments,” Dorantes said at a news conference on the grounds of the Department of Veterans Affairs. “For several years now we explicitly require that our social workers talk to caretakers of infants and very young children about how they practice safe sleep every time they go to the home.”
Faith Vos Winkel, the state’s Assistant Child Advocate, said Connecticut loses “on average a classroom size of children just to safe sleep issues” every year. She said that from 2013 to 2018, the state lost 123 infants to sleep-related deaths, noting that number does not include children who die of other causes.
DCF is attempting to combat this problem, but Dorantes said the agency sometimes struggles to get the message across even when it has followed up with families.
“It’s not as easy as just talking to a family about safe sleep and then the problem is solved,” Dorantes said. “We have seen unsafe sleep tragedies when the documentation is very clear that we spoke with the family multiple times.”
The quality of the discussion and engagement with the family is critical, Dorantes said, which is why the department’s simulation laboratory work is valuable.
A non-profit Wethersfield-based group called FAVOR, Inc., which works to empower families as advocates for children, partners with DCF to do the training, providing staff members who play the role of family members so DCF social workers can practice their interactions with clients on myriad topics.
On Monday, Maquena Deslandes played the role of the mother, while Brenda Whittingham, who is a DCF social worker trainee, was the worker visiting Deslandes.
In Monday’s enactment, the mom, Delsandes, agrees to show Whittingham the bedroom where her baby sleeps and the social worker talks gently with her about safe sleeping rules, which the mom seems to know: a firm mattress, nothing in the crib but the baby, the baby on her back.
But then Whittingham spots folded clothes in the crib. The mom says she only put them there for a short time, but with the mom’s permission, Whittingham takes the clothes out of the crib and puts them elsewhere.
“This is perfect,” the Whittingham tells the mom. “This is how the baby should be be sleeping. I want to reiterate because we don’t want anything to happen to the baby.”
Whittingham gets a strong review from the supervisors who analyze the simulation with her, noting that it was good that she actually removed the clothes from the crib.
Dorantes said the Annie E. Casey Foundation recently found that Connecticut had the second lowest child death rate in the country.
But still, she said, in 40 percent of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome cases, unsafe sleeping habits were a factor. The CDC found in a recent national survey that despite widespread warnings against it, about a fifth of survey respondents said they place their baby on the baby’s side or stomach. Further, 61 percent reported sharing a bed with their infant, and nearly two in five reported using soft bedding — most commonly bumper pads and thick blankets.
“All of these practices are dangerous and can be deadly,” Dorantes said.
Citing recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics, Dorantes said the rules for creating a safe sleep environment for infants are:
- Place the infants on their back to sleep.
- Use a firm sleep surface, such as a mattress.
- Share a room, but not a bed.
- Avoid soft bedding such as blankets, pillows and bumper pads.
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