Mysterious Indiana baby deaths probed

Mom speaks after losing 6-month-old son

INDIANAPOLIS - The Call 6 Investigators have been looking into mysterious deaths affecting dozens of babies in Indiana every year.

Indiana has the sixth-highest infant mortality rate in the U.S., Call 6 Investigator Kara Kenney reported.

Sudden Infant Death Syndrome is the leading cause of death for babies after the first month of life.

State numbers obtained by Call 6 show that in 2010 and 2011, 87 babies died of SIDS and 38 died from accidental suffocation or strangulation in bed.

Jen Hittle, of West Lafayette, lost her 6-month-old baby, Brenton, just over a year ago at a day care.

The couple had never noticed anything unusual about Brenton.

"He was so easy, so happy all the time," said Hittle. "He was almost crawling."

Jen’s husband, Brock, dropped Brenton off at babysitter Kelly Davis, an unlicensed day care, on Jan. 25, 2013. That’s where Brenton took his last breath.

"That's the news you never want to hear is that your child stopped breathing," said Hittle. "The doctor called us back to the room and I already knew from my experience, I knew what that meant. So we went back there and he said, 'We tried to bring him back for an hour and we couldn't. He's gone.' It's the hardest thing I'll ever have to hear."

Hittle also had to deal with the authorities investigating Brenton's death.

The Family and Social Services Administration sent Davis a cease-and-desist letter, saying that on the day of the fatality, there were more than five unrelated children in her home, which is against the law.

In Indiana, child care providers must get a license if they have more than five unrelated children in the home.

Davis was not criminally charged, and Hittle said the crib where Brenton was found was in good condition.

"We finally got the autopsy report back, and they said, 'We're ruling it a SIDS death,'"’ said Hittle. "Nobody could've saved him."

The Call 6 Investigators found new research from Boston Children's Hospital that reveals many babies who die of SIDS had an abnormality in their brainstems, a deficit of serotonin, a chemical that regulates things like breathing and heart rate.

"I think it really reaffirms the idea that SIDS is a disease. It's an abnormality at work," said Dr. David Paterson, principal research associate with Boston Children’s Hospital. "It's not just sleep positions. It's not babies suffocating."

SIDS and suffocation are two completely different things, said Melissa Chalman, a safe sleep specialist with the Indiana Association for Child Care Resource and Referral, who trains parents and child care providers.

"I think there is confusion," said Chalman. "A lot of people that come to the training are not quite sure what the difference is between SIDS and suffocation."

A 2007 investigation from our partners at Scripps News Service found that nationally, coroners and medical examiners incorrectly labeled mysterious deaths as SIDS.

The Scripps study also found that most coroners are not following the methods of investigation recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, prompting them instead to rely on often incorrect diagnoses of SIDS. 

A baby who dies from suffocation dies from lack of oxygen, usually in an unsafe sleep environment.

"Suffocation is definitely preventable," said Chalman.

SIDS, on the other hand, is not entirely preventable, but you can reduce the risk, Chalman said.

"Pacifiers and actually breastfeeding reduces the risk of SIDS," said Chalman.

Other ways to reduce the risk include putting your baby on her back to sleep, not smoking, and not sharing a bed with a baby. Use sleep sacks instead of blankets. Clear the crib of soft things and keep the nursery cool.

"When they've done autopsies on babies that have died of SIDS, often times, their hair is matted, which indicates they've overheated at some point in time," said Chalman.

Experts said baby monitors can give parents and child care providers a false sense of security.

"The first symptom of SIDS is death," said Chalman. "It doesn’t make a sound. There's no warning there."

Researchers hope to eventually offer a screening at birth that will show whether a baby's brain has a SIDS abnormality.

"That's really where we'd like to head. That's the point of the research we're doing is to get to that point where we can identify and protect infants at risk of SIDS," said Paterson.

Jen Hittle wishes a test was available for Brenton and for the baby she's expecting this month.

"It has brought joy into our lives again," said Hittle. "Not that it will ever be a replacement for Brenton. We miss him every moment and every day."

Hittle is doing things differently and taking steps to reduce the risk of SIDS.

"I'm going to attempt breastfeeding," said Hittle. "We've changed our crib bedding, gotten rid of our bumpers."

It's unclear whether anything could have saved Brenton's life, but Hittle wants parents and day care providers to follow sleep guidelines and remember Brenton's story.

"It would really help us to know we're helping other people," said Hittle.

Davis closed the day care at that location and declined to speak with Call 6 for this story.   

Resources:

Safe To Sleep
PO Box 3006
Rockville, MD  20847
1-800-505-CRIB
http://www.nichd.nih.gov/sts/Pages/default.aspx

Infant Toddler Specialists in Indiana
Indiana association for Child Care resource and Referral
http://iaccrr.org

First Candle/SIDS Alliance
1314 Bedford Avenue, Suite 210
Baltimore, MD  21208
www.firstcandle.org
1-800-221-7437

National SIDS Infant Death Resource Center
www.sidscenter.org
1-866-866-7437

Healthy Child Care America
http://www.healthychildcare.org

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