In December 2017, a seven-week-old baby died due to bed-sharing. His mother Jolene O’Hanlon sat before a court in March to answer questions about the death. During the inquest, the mother admitted that her choice to co-sleep with her baby led to his untimely death.
On a cold winters night in December 2017, Jolene O’Hanlon‘s house was in a bit of disarray. Earlier in the day her washing machine broke and flooded the home. In the washing machine at the time, were her children’s uniforms for school.
Attempting to dry out the uniforms, Jolene wrung out the clothes. With the clothes still wet, she turned up the radiator and placed the outfits on the heater to dry.
After taking care of the clothes, Jolene gave her attention to her newborn son Declan. Earlier in the week, Declan came down with a cold. That evening he had a slight rattle in his chest and a runny nose.
Before she put him to bed, she gave him a bottle and fed him. When she finished feeding him, she placed him in a small basket next to her bed. Jolene climbed into a double bed that she shared with her 18-month-old daughter.
Not long after placing Declan in the basket, she reached over and felt his hands. Jolene told the court that his hands were blue and cold. Concerned about his respiratory infection, she picked up her son and placed him in bed with her.
The mother admitted that she had co-slept with all of her kids. Additionally, she said that she knew that there were risks to sharing the bed with her son. However, she wanted to help keep him warm.
Realizing her daughter was in bed with her, she placed a pillow between her daughter and the baby. After settling Declan into bed, the three of them drifted off to sleep.
When Jolene arose in the morning, she noticed that the coloring on Declan’s face appeared off. One side of his face was white, and the other side was blue. She realized that Declan wasn’t breathing. In a frenzy, Jolene began CPR on her son and called for an ambulance.
When first responders arrived at her home, the crew took over resuscitation efforts. Sadly, Declan never regained consciousness. Shortly after arriving at the hospital, doctors pronounced the infant dead.
After Declan died, the coroner opened an inquest into his death. When he completed the investigation, the coroner presented his findings in court.
On March 13, 2019, Jolene O’Hanlon and Declan’s father Hugh Butler learned the fate of the investigation. During the hearing, the coroner told the court that the parents were honest and straightforward about what happened.
Coroner Patrick McGurgan said that Declan died from “Sudden and Unexpected Death in Infancy and co-sleeping.” Additionally, McGurgan stated that the fact that Jolene left the radiators on overnight to dry the clothes played a role in the baby’s death.
Despite her errors in judgment, the coroner did not blame Jolene for Declan’s death. Instead, he praised her for her bravery in sharing her story and using the experience to bring awareness to the risks of co-sleeping. Since Declan’s death, Jolene has been vocal in sharing her story to help families learn about the dangers of co-sleeping.
Perhaps most alarming in the court hearing was that the coroner said that Declan and two other babies died in the same week due to co-sleeping. Despite the risks of co-sleeping, the UK does not formally denounce the practice to citizens.
Coroner McGurgan told the court that it is imperative that the public hears about the dangers of co-sleeping. He said, “It is something we have all done, and a lot of people will continue to do, but we need to highlight the risks.”
After the hearing, O’Hanlon spoke outside to reporters, She said,
“There are not enough people listening. People really do not think this is going to come to their door, same as myself. I didn’t expect it. We need to get the message out and people need to listen.”
Declan’s father Hugh Butler added by saying,
“People just don’t know until it comes to their door. They think it’s never going to happen to them. So many people do it, but people need to listen. We need to get the message out there.”
After a baby is born, hospitals in Ireland provide pamphlets to families about the dangers of co-sleeping. However, Jolene told the BBC that a booklet is not the same as hearing about the risks from a parent that has lost a child due to co-sleeping.
In the interview with the BBC, Jolene said,
“Please, anybody with their wee baby just cherish that wee baby and just remember no matter how tired you are or you cannot settle the baby just try and ask for help of somebody but always make sure you put the baby in its cot no matter what.
“If me doing this can save another wee baby’s life then that will be his legacy and he would not have died in vain.”
A doctor that spoke at the inquest stated that around 60 children die each year in Northern Ireland due to co-sleeping. However, the experts suggest that the number could be much higher because the cause of death is difficult to determine.
While the UK does not formally denounce the practice, the National Health Service does suggest putting a baby in a crib or bassinet instead of a bed.
If parents do co-sleep, the NHS says that parents should not be taking any prescription drugs, narcotics, or alcohol. Additionally, parents should never sleep with the baby on a couch or an armchair.
The United States has a different approach relating to co-sleeping. With hundreds of babies dying a year due to SUID, the American Academy of Pediatrics and Centers for Disease Control instruct parents to never co-sleep.
The organizations recommend babies always sleep alone, on their backs, in a crib, and without blankets or other objects in the crib. Parents are encouraged to sleep in the same room as the infant until they are six months old.
According to the CDC and AAP, there is no safe way to co-sleep. An analysis completed by NPR of multiple studies on sleep-related deaths suggested that there is a 1 in 16,400 chance of a low-risk infant dying due to bed-sharing. If the baby is high-risk with health-related issues, the probability of dying due to bedsharing is 1 in 150.
Adding confusion to the conversation is that organizations like La Leche League promote bedsharing. In fact, their website provides tips for parents to reduce their risks of infant death due to bedsharing. Because LLL advocates for bedsharing, many breastfeeding mothers believe there is a safe way to bedshare.
However, the truth is that there is no safe way to bedshare. Anytime a parent brings a baby into their bed; they increase their baby’s risk of death exponentially.
Bed-sleeping deaths are entirely preventable. Babies are susceptible to overheating, suffocation, and rolling over when they share a bed. If you breastfeed, return the baby to their crib or bassinet after the baby finishes.
*Katie Joy is a columnist and hosts Without A Crystal Ball on Patheos Non-Religious Channel. She writes articles on parenting, disability advocacy, debunking pseudoscience, atheism, and crimes against women and children.
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