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Barrett, Health Department and faith leaders unite

Safe Sleep Sabbath educates congregations on infant mortality

By Maricha Harris

The model baby shows the proper type of position for a baby to sleep (on their back), along with sleeping alone in a proper type of sleeping crib no toys, no extra covers or pillows. (Photo by Robert A. Bell)

Sunday morning service is the last place a churchgoer would expect to learn how to place her baby safely to sleep. But on Sunday, October 9th that’s just what various area congregations were taught. Mayor Tom Barrett and Health Commissioner Bevan Baker visited three of the churches participating in the First Safe Sleep Sabbath; New Hope Missionary Baptist Church, Mason Temple Church of God in Christ (COGIC) and Holy Cathedral COGIC.

“Milwaukee has the highest infant mortality rate in the nation, and it is specifically with regard to African Americans and Hispanics,” said Bishop C.H. McClelland of Holy Cathedral COGIC. With a rate of 14.3 (compared to 5.6 for Caucasian babies), Milwaukee’s African American infant mortality rate exceeds rates in at least 35 countries around the world, and, according to a release from the Mayor’s office, it is also higher than larger cities like Chicago and New York.

A number of factors contribute to infant mortality—or death before age one—including prematurity and unsafe sleeping positions. These heartbreaking rates among African American and Hispanic babies have united officials and faith-based leaders. “We cannot ignore this problem because it deals with the future of our communities,” said Bishop McClelland. “As faith larders we must provide information and resources to our community to decrease this alarming problem.”

Pastor Osie Tatum, Jr. of Mason Temple COGIC feels a personal connection to the effort to save Milwaukee babies. At age eight, he lost a baby brother who was just under two months old. “I remembered how it traumatized my mother and us as siblings,” he said.

Pastor Tatum believes money is a major factor. “People don’t have the resources to pay for prenatal care or to buy the kinds of furnishings they need for safe sleeping,” he said.

Faith leaders believe they can play a key role in reducing Milwaukee’s infant mortality rates. “We can use our pulpit as a platform to make people aware of the issue,” said Pastor Tatum. And that’s just what happened on Sunday, with both words from Mayor Barrett, Commissioner Baker and the pastors and demonstrations on how to put a baby to sleep in a safe position and in a safe sleeping environment.

“Reducing infant mortality requires a multi-pronged approach in messaging and interventions to key stakeholders in our community, said Commissioner of Health Bevan K. Baker. The Safe Sleep Sabbath was an excellent example of engaging a very critical group in our community that truly has the power and influence to promote the importance of safe sleep and healthy behaviors.”

The commitment to helping reduce infant mortality in Milwaukee did not begin on the 9th nor did it end after that Sunday morning service. During a special luncheon held at Columbia St. Mary’s on September 28th, public officials and nearly 100 faith leaders attended to learn about the problem and to assemble a working committee to address the issue going forward. “The goal of the committee,” said Bishop McClelland, “is to come together to address the issue with a broader perspective.”

In addition to the committee, the 44 churches within the Wisconsin Northwest COGIC District are all a part of Cogent Covenant, a partnership between Columbia St. Mary’s and local churches. The partnerships will include infant mortality reduction efforts to its health programs. Cogent Covenant was established prior to Safe Sleep Sabbath.

Churches across the city also participated in Safe Sleep Sabbath by dedicating service time to the issue.

New parents in need can get a free Pack ‘n Play from Milwaukee Health Department sites or from Holy Cathedral’s Word of Hope [Outreach] Ministries. Contact your local health center for more information or Holy Cathedral at 414-447-1965.