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Critical infant safe sleep knowledge

'The vast majority of these deaths are preventable.'

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Liz Bell/EducationNC

Over the last three years covering early learning and development, I’ve become too familiar with a troubling set of numbers:

  • Though North Carolina’s infant mortality rate has fallen in the last 20 years, it’s still the 13th highest in the country.
  • While the overall rate has fallen, the disparity between Black and white babies has slightly increased.
  • Black babies are 2.67 times more likely to die in the first year of life than white babies.

At the most recent Child Fatality Task Force meeting, I was refreshed to hear about work being done to change these realities. Safe Sleep NC, an initiative from the Collaborative for Maternal and Infant Health (CMIH) at UNC-Chapel Hill, trains health providers and organizations and provides materials to families on how to ensure babies have safe sleeping environments.

It turns out that deaths related to unsafe sleeping environments are the third leading cause of infant mortality and the leading cause in the postneonatal period (months 2-12), accounting for 121 deaths in North Carolina babies’ first years of life in 2020. It’s also a driver of the disparity: Black babies were twice as likely to die from causes related to unsafe sleeping.

“The vast majority of these deaths are preventable,” said Erin McClain, assistant director and research associate at CMIH.

The group is requesting $250,000 in annual recurring legislative funds, which the task force is supporting in recommendations to the governor and legislature. McClain said this level of funding would allow a “multi-pronged approach,” providing more intensive training to social service and health care organizations, ensuring birthing facilities are educating families about safe sleep, testing what kinds of education work best for high-risk families, and tailoring educational materials to specific communities.

“Providers, organizations, and communities want to do more to support safe sleep,” she said. “This funding would help us provide a statewide comprehensive approach to make sleep safer for every North Carolina baby.”

Below, don’t miss research on the pandemic’s continued shaping of the child care industry, and a call for preschool investments to reduce incarceration and increase public safety.

As always, I’m eager to hear your questions and story ideas. As EdNC strives to get to know communities across our state more intimately, I’m specifically looking for stories and contacts in these counties: Polk, Pender, New Hanover, Craven, Jones, Onslow, and Chowan. Let’s connect.


Early Bird reads: What we’re writing

Funds requested for safe sleep education to reduce infant deaths

Other states spend more than North Carolina on safe sleep efforts, McClain said, with West Virginia allocating $4.75 per baby compared to 38 cents per baby in North Carolina. Florida spends about the amount North Carolina does per baby on printing and shipping materials alone, she said. States pull from various funding sources and programs: Medicaid, infant mortality reduction efforts, child maltreatment prevention, and injury prevention.

North Carolina early care and education by the numbers: Fewer children, sites, staff in recent years

In case you missed it, a new dashboard from the Department of Health and Human Services shows an early childhood landscape that has shrunk in recent years.

There are fewer early learning sites overall, fewer children served, and fewer staff. Some of these trends seem to be directly related to the pandemic — like a 32% drop in NC Pre-K enrollment — and some predate it.


In other early learning news: What I’m reading


Research & Resources: Let's talk preschool and child care

Two recent reports, one from a group of law enforcement leaders and one from a leading child care advocacy organization, are not giving up hope on the early childhood components in Build Back Better, calling for investments in preschool and child care.

The Council for a Strong America released a brief last week with an independent cost-benefit analysis showing universal pre-K returning a profit (“economic benefits minus cost”) of more than $15,000 per child. The group then multiplied that by the approximately 6 million additional children who could be served by the universal pre-K proposal in Build Back Better, estimating a profit of $90 billion over those children’s lifetimes.

The bottom of the report recognized the larger ecosystem that pre-K sits within: “Solutions must address how a federal-state preschool system would interact with the child care system, which often relies on the tuition it receives from 3-and 4-year olds to counterbalance the higher cost of infant and toddler care.”

Meanwhile, Child Care Aware picked up where the group left off, “demanding change” for the early care and education continuum from birth through kindergarten.

“We could be at the turning point for a more equitable system of early learning, as the provisions in this historic, proposed legislation will support our families and communities by funding universal preschool for 3‑ and 4‑year‑olds and funding initiatives that increase wages for child care providers while making high‑quality child care accessible for millions of families,” reads the report’s introduction. “Our demands for change have been heard.”

The group’s report explores four aspects of early care and education: supply, demand, affordability, and the child care workforce. The message is not much different than the group’s 2020 report: the pandemic has exacerbated preexisting, systemic challenges. The report also lifts up new ways to measure demand for child care using Google Trends and an evolving conversation on what quality child care means.

Liz Bell

Liz Bell is the early childhood reporter for EducationNC.