SAN DIEGO — For Jeri Wilson, March 1, 1993 started off as a perfectly normal day. She took her baby girl Jenelle Beltz to daycare so that she could go to a job interview and lunch afterwards with a friend. When Wilson returned to pick up her daughter, the daycare staff ran out and shouted at her to go to the hospital.
Her daughter had stopped breathing in her sleep.
The daycare staff, paramedics and hospital staff all tried to resuscitate the tiny baby to no avail. After 45 minutes of CPR in the emergency room, Beltz was declared dead.
“She was a 16-pound, 3-month-old baby. And I left for a couple hours, and I come back and she was gone,” said Wilson.
“Basically they didn’t know why she stopped breathing and they couldn’t resuscitate her, and that was it,” Wilson said of her daughter’s sudden death.
After finding no apparent reason for Beltz’s death, medical examiners and law enforcement could only conclude that she had died from SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome), which affects babies under the age of one year, and the cause of death often goes unexplained.
Today, Wilson works to expand the support available for others who have lost a child to SIDS and raise public awareness.
Wilson has been involved in SIDS support groups, public education efforts and research funding for the past 16 years. She is the president of the San Diego Guild for Infant Survival, a nonprofit and SIDS support group, and the vice-chair for the Southern California SIDS Council.
“Babies are still dying and the majority of the population doesn’t know a lot about SIDS still,” Wilson said.
Because many people do not understand SIDS, she encourages those who have experienced a SIDS loss to seek support.
“I think that parents really need that support when they are first grieving,” she said.
Over the years she has felt that others treated her loss like “the elephant in the room.”
Thanks to the support she found in San Diego, she said she can reach out to parents who understand her ongoing feelings of loss. “I can talk to my SIDS parents, and they tell me that I’m normal.”
SIDS was the fourth leading cause of death for infants between the ages of one-month and one-year in 2010, according to the most recent CDPH (California Department of Public Health) data. That year, 26 babies died from SIDS in San Diego County.
SIDS deaths most often occur when the baby is sleeping, and, statistically, the number of SIDS deaths is typically higher during the winter months.
“We don’t know why these infants die suddenly and unexpectedly and always in their sleep,” said Kitty Roche, a public health nurse manager for San Diego County.
Roche became the first SIDS dedicated nurse in San Diego County in 1992. She continues to work with public health nurses as well as county and state officials to extend SIDS research, training, support and public awareness.
There are a number of reasons why the highest percent of SIDS deaths occur during the winter holiday season, according to Roche.
During the holidays, non-regular caregivers like friends and relatives will help take care of a baby, and sometimes do not follow safe sleep practices for the baby, said Roche.
Also, families often travel during this time of the year and are not in control of where an infant will sleep or the temperature of the infant’s sleeping room, Roche said.
Although the cause of SIDS is unknown, research has found a number of safe sleep practices that help reduce the risks of SIDS.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that parents strictly follow safe sleep practices and provide safe sleep environments for their infants.
The AAP states that babies should always be placed on their backs for nap and nighttime sleep and should be dressed in light clothing and sleep in rooms with a comfortable temperature to prevent them from getting too hot.
The AAP also suggests that parents and caregivers consider giving infants a pacifier during sleep time.
Because SIDS most frequently occurs when a baby is sleep, SIDS used to be called “crib death,” according to Roche.
As such, the AAP particularly encourages caregivers to ensure that babies sleep in a safe environment. The AAP recommends that babies sleep on firm mattresses with a fitted sheet in the same room as their parents, but not in the same bed. Toys and soft bedding should be kept out of a baby’s sleeping area.
Roche was careful to emphasize that monitors and devices that are promoted as reducing the risks of SIDS do not work and should not be used.
Like Wilson, Roche also encourages people who have suffered a SIDS loss to seek support.
After a SIDS death, “so many families are so shocked and completely confused,” said Roche.
After about two decades of specializing in SIDS work, Roche said she is in awe of the support SIDS parents offer to one another.
“I look at these parents who take the absolutely worst thing that has happened to them and turn it around to help other people,” Roche said.
Wilson still recalls being contacted shortly after her daughter died by another parent who had lost a child to SIDS.
“I felt like, ‘Wow, somebody can survive from this. Somebody else experienced the same thing and survived,’” Wilson said.
More information about SIDS and SIDS support can be found at the San Diego Guild for Infant Survival’s website at sandiegosids.org and the californiasids.com.