Despite its public outreach efforts, the state Department of Health announced Wednesday, Oct. 9, that unsafe sleeping practices continue to account for a majority of Minnesota's sudden and unexpected infant deaths.

Of the 90 deaths recorded in 2016 and 2017, according to figures the department released Wednesday, 74 were the result of unsafe sleep environments. The number of statewide sleep-related deaths for 2018 has not been determined, although 51 infants died unexpectedly that year.

Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Hennepin County assistant chief medical examiner Owen Middleton said that 16 to 17 sleep-related deaths are reported to the county Medical Examiner's office each year. A "concern for an unsafe sleep environment" was found in 14 of the 23 deaths reported to the county in 2018, he said.

"Deaths like these are rare," Owen said during a press conference held at the Hennepin County Medical Center. "But if you are the parent or parents of an infant that dies as a result of an unsafe sleep environment, it is a devastating experience."

According to the health department's findings, 85% of the infants who died unexpectedly in 2016 and 2017 were not in a crib, bassinet or side sleeper. Eighty-one percent, meanwhile, had unsafe bedding, toys or other unsafe objects where they slept.

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Sharing a bed or other sleep surface, such as a sofa or recliner, with another person accounted for 61% of infant deaths recorded in those two years. Babies put to bed on their sides or stomachs accounted for 59%.

Health officials on Wednesday reiterated that the safest place for an infant to sleep is in a cradle fitted with a tight sheet. They also recommended the use of "sleep sacks," which are garments that babies can be wrapped in for warmth without risk of suffocation.

The safest way for babies to sleep, they said, is by themselves and on their backs.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, sudden infant death syndrome and sudden unexplained infant deaths — or SIDS and SUIDs, respectively — disproportionately affect communities of color and impoverished households. State health department assistant commissioner Courtney Jordan Baechler said that the same is true of those deaths that occur in Minnesota, although demographic information was not immediately available.

To prevent sleep-related deaths, she said hospitals can provide more safe sleeping materials and resources to new parents. She also encouraged hospitals to seek certification through the National Safe Sleep Hospital Certification program, which is operated by the Pittsburgh-based non-profit Cribs for Kids.

Two Minnesota hospitals are currently certified through the program, according to the organization's website: the Hennepin County center and St. Luke's Hospital in Duluth.