Can gift sleeping boxes reduce Ohio baby deaths?

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A Los Angeles company is working with hospitals and health departments in Ohio to give away cardboard box beds for every newborn in the state this year in an effort to reduce the high infant-mortality rate.

Supporters say these beds — inspired by boxes provided to every newborn in Finland for decades — can be used during an infant’s first months to reduce the risk of sleep-related deaths.

In 2015, 1,005 Ohio babies died before their first birthday, with 150 of the deaths — about three each week — being sleep-related. The state’s overall rate of 7.2 deaths per 1,000 live births is well above the national rate of 5.9, and ranks Ohio 38th among states.

The baby-box initiative is a partnership between the Baby Box Co. and the Cincinnati Health Department, the Richland County Health Department, University Hospitals MacDonald Women’s Hospital in Cleveland, University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital in Cleveland, Muskingum Valley Health Centers and the nonprofit Babies Need Boxes.

The groups want to distribute as many as 140,000 boxes this year. That’s about the number of annual births in Ohio.

“We don’t really think that this in itself is going to stop infant sleep-related deaths, but it’s a way for us to give parents the education and tools to make that less likely, to help them succeed,” said Celina Cunanan, director of midwifery services for University Hospitals in Cleveland and a founding member of Babies Need Boxes Ohio.

To get a box, parents must register and complete a 15- to 20-minute course and quiz at www.babyboxuniversity.com that covers prenatal health, safe-sleep practices, breastfeeding, postpartum contraception and pregnancy mental health. Boxes, which include a mattress and are filled with newborn essentials, can be mailed to parents or picked up at various locations.

Ohio is the second state that the Baby Box Co. has taken on.

It initiated its first statewide program in New Jersey in late January. Since then, more than 7,000 baby boxes have been given to parents, and about 6,000 more are being prepared for shipment. The company also has launched programs in other U.S. cities and in Canada and the United Kingdom, said Jennifer Clary, Baby Box Co. co-founder and chief executive.

“We believe that every child, regardless of socioeconomic status, has a right to a safe start in life,” Clary said in an email. “We’re fulfilling a promise to provide a safe sleep environment and education across the globe.”

Still, these type of sleep boxes have not gained universal acceptance.

The March of Dimes has not rung in on the matter. Neither has the Ohio Department of Health, but it said it is “committed to promoting access to all safe sleep environments,” said spokeswoman Melanie Amato. The state partners with Cribs for Kids to provide free cribs to families who cannot afford them.

CelebrateOne, a local effort to reduce infant mortality in central Ohio, does not endorse the boxes.

The organization recommends that newborns be placed in empty cribs or pack-and-play playpens, which CelebrateOne provides free of charge to parents who cannot afford them, said executive director Erika Clark Jones.

There were 26 sleep-related deaths among children younger than 1 in Franklin County last year, Jones said, and a goal is to cut that number in half this year.

Experts say infants should be placed on their backs, on their own and with no pillows, bumpers, blankets or toys.

“It just takes one instance of a baby being on an unsafe sleep surface that could have a detrimental outcome,” Jones said. “We want to avoid that.”

Finland’s infant mortality rate was 2 per 1,000 live births in 2015, according to the World Health Organization. Health officials there swear by the sleep boxes, which are given to every family.

Cunanan said she hopes Americans embrace the Finnish tradition that says all babies are important, regardless of their ethnicity or where they come from.

“Every baby is important, every life is important,” she said. “We want all babies to have a safe start in life.”

Two baby-box launch events will be held for Ohio parents on Friday. The first is at 10:30 a.m. in the atrium at University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center, 2101 Adelbert Road in Cleveland. The second event is at 2:30 p.m. at the Mansfield Area YMCA, 750 Scholl Road in Mansfield.

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