07/22/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Babies Dying at Alarming Rates: Calling Attention to a National Problem

Here in my home town of Indianapolis, we are facing a crisis: the number of babies who die as a result of unsafe sleep practices is dramatically on the rise. During the first six months of 2009, in Marion County alone, there have been 16 deaths caused by babies sleeping in adult beds, on sofas or in cribs that have soft or fluffy bedding or other soft items in them.

These are healthy babies who did not have to die. The families are devastated; they never intended to put their baby in harm's way. In most cases, they were doing the best they could with the knowledge and resources they had at the time. Instead of providing services for the families to help keep their baby healthy and safe, we are left to help them pick up the pieces and mend their broken hearts.

Sadly, this scenario is not exclusive to Marion County or even Indiana.

According to national statistics, of the 4,500 sudden, unexpected infant deaths that occur each year in the United States, at least 8 out of 10 happen when the baby is sleeping with an adult. How can this be in the world's most wealthy and educated nation? These are very clearly preventable deaths.

As a health professional who has worked in the maternal/infant health arena for many years, it devastates me when I learn about these deaths. Breakthroughs in research have given us the knowledge and evidence we need to state emphatically that we must protect our babies while they sleep and, even more importantly, while the parent or caregiver sleeps; just as we need to protect them when they ride in cars, when they ride their bikes or when they venture away from our protective embrace inside our home (block the stairs, put harmful products out of reach, cover electrical outlets) or outside our home (stay away from the street, stay away from strangers.)

Despite the existence of lifesaving steps that every parent and caregiver can take to prevent these tragic deaths parents are not getting the message. Or they don't understand the importance of the message. Or they simply don't have the resources to provide their baby with a safe place to sleep.

Unfortunately, budget cuts at the local and state level make it almost impossible to conduct the type of comprehensive campaign that has the ability to prevent these deaths and spare families the devastation of losing a much-loved child.

As a nation, we must pool our resources, time and energy to reverse this alarming trend. There are two things we need to do: (1) ensure that every parent and caregiver understands and faithfully follows lifesaving safe sleep recommendations and (2) ensure that every baby has a safe place to sleep, especially if the family can't afford one. In doing so, we would have the ability to literally save thousands of babies' lives every year for generations to come.

Fortunately, there is hope on the horizon. First Candle, one of the nation's leading nonprofits dedicated to infant health and survival, is taking the lead.

First Candle's National Crib Campaign has developed Bedtime Basics for Babies. By saturating target areas with safe sleep education and cribs for families in need and at risk, it is the goal of the campaign to demonstrate the ability to change infant care practices and save precious lives. Through a strong research component, First Candle hopes to document and conclude, once and for all, that how and where we place our babies to sleep is critical in preventing sudden, unexpected infant deaths.

In my mind, a campaign such as this is long overdue.

We are fortunate that Indiana has been selected as one of the target areas to receive the resources needed to conduct a statewide campaign. From grandparents helping to raise infant grandbabies and single moms with no resources to properly care for their babies to moms who have been told that sleeping with their babies is safe and natural and moms who would have given anything to understand the dangers of adult beds for sleeping babies if it meant that their babies would still be alive, the campaign is making a difference.

As a mother who has experienced the sudden, unexpected death of my son Jake , and as a health professional who deals on a daily basis with the devastation of infant deaths, I ask that you consider helping support this important effort. By working together, we can make sure that every baby is given the best possible chance to celebrate not only his or her first birthday, but many happy birthdays beyond.

I'm sure you're asking "What can I do, I'm only one person?" If, as only one person, you can save even one life, you have made a difference. Here are some things you can do:

* Learn as much as you can about current safe sleep practices and share this information with everyone you know who cares for a baby or who may care for a baby in the future.
* Commit to recruiting the help of those in your community who currently provide services to families such as OB-GYN and pediatric offices, hospital newborn and NICU units, childbirth educators, mid-wives and childcare centers. Materials and education and training opportunities are available.
* Make a financial contribution to support First Candle. You'd be amazed at what your dollar can buy. In-kind donations to cover printing, shipping and other logistical expenses will help sustain current programs and/or help establish new ones. First Candle is happy to designate your donation to a specific program or service.
* Think of your expanded circle of influence - connections to corporations, business and civic leaders, retailers - anyone who may be in a position to help support a Bedtime Basics for Babies campaign in your community.

If you are in Indiana and would like more information, you can contact me directly at 1-866-599-6419. For national assistance in obtaining additional information, materials or identifying a crib distribution program near you, please contact Jennie Boden at 1-800-221-7437.