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'These are all preventable deaths' | Alarming rise in infant sleep deaths in East Tennessee

So far in 2022, medical examiners at the Regional Forensic Center have conducted 24 autopsies on infants under 1 year old.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Doctors in East Tennessee are warning of an 'alarming' increase in the number of infants who are dying in unsafe sleep situations — deaths they call "preventable." 

The Regional Forensic Center reported nearly double the number of accidental infant deaths in 2021. The negative trend appears to be continuing into 2022. Already, forensic examiners are on track to surpass the total number of infant autopsies conducted last year. 

"These are all preventable deaths and they’re actually really easy to prevent," said Dr. Darinka Mileusnic-Polchan, the Knox County Chief Medical Examiner. 

Doctors repeat the memory device "ABC" to help parents of newborns remember safe sleep practices. It stands for "Alone, Back and Crib." Babies should sleep alone, on their back and in a crib until they're at least 1 year old, said Dr. Mary Palmer of East Tennessee Children's Hospital. 

"Even a hand on the chest of a baby will prevent that baby from fully expanding their chest so essentially they slowly suffocate," Palmer said. 

She said parents should be particularly careful to avoid sleeping on the same surface as their newborns, including refraining from the popular Instagram trend of posting photos of fathers with their baby asleep on their chest on the couch. 

"You want to see your child, your baby looking safe and cuddly and snuggly and what’s really just important to remember is for that period of time when they’re an infant, those things they’re not cuddly — they’re dangerous," said Katie Larsen with the Knox County Health Department. 

Larsen works with programs that help provide parents with tips and tools to keep their infants safe, including the Cribs for Kids program. "If parents are concerned that they don’t have the resources to provide a crib or a bassinet for their baby, through these programs we can make sure they have what they need, she said."

The chance for accidental suffocation is real, Children's Hospital doctor Palmer said, simple tips can help keep babies safe. 

"This is a real thing that happens to people, they really do lose their babies forever for a moment that they can never take back," Palmer said.