Baby box craze promoting safer infant sleep comes to Cincinnati, but doctors aren't on board

CINCINNATI -- By now, you may have seen the baby boxes that are all over the Internet. It’s simply that – a cardboard box that serves as a place for your newborn to sleep.

It may sound strange, but it’s all in an effort to reduce sleep-related deaths in infants.

The boxes measure slightly more two feet long and a foot tall. They’re similar to a bassinet and come with some baby necessities and a mattress in the bottom. They’re in such high demand that some people are getting put on waitlists for them.

"I signed up as soon as I could, as soon as I saw it on Facebook,” said new mother Amanda Hicks. "Some people are like, ‘You're just going to box him up in there and put the lid on there?’ I’m like, ‘No, it’s a legitimate bassinet.’ There's no shame in it. Babies don't care.”

Her son Milo has a traditional bassinet in the bedroom, but Hicks said the box’s mattress is even nicer than that.

The idea comes from Finland where similar boxes are credited with reducing high infant mortality rates. The boxes are now available for free in three states, including Ohio. The only place to get them in Clermont County is through the nonprofit Brave Choices. Executive Director Beth Bullock said her group has had mothers from all backgrounds signing up.

“It doesn't matter what your income level is. It doesn't matter what your socioeconomic level is. It is a safe sleeping place for the baby, and that's the key,” Bullock said. “So we've had moms on all ends of the spectrum from moms who are middle class, upper middle class moms all the way to moms who aren't so fortunate."

Doctors at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital aren’t so quick to embrace the baby boxes.

Dr. James Greenberg, director of neonatology at Children’s Hospital and co-founder of Cradle Cincinnati, said the ABCs of safe sleep are Alone, on the Back in the Crib. A baby box only checks off two of those components.

"Most of the sleep-related deaths in Hamilton County are due to unsafe infant sleeping practices," Greenberg said.

Hamilton County is preparing to release its latest infant mortality figures on Tuesday, but 100 infants died before their first birthdays in 2015.

“In this past year, it seems that excessive amounts of bedding and unsafe sleep surfaces may be contributing to the deaths still occurring in Hamilton County,” Greenberg said.

So, why not give the box a try? The baby box company pointed to its success in Finland, but Greenberg said it’s like comparing apples and oranges.

“The association between the box and infant mortality reduction isn't clear to us because the more logical explanation for the low infant mortality rate in Finland is the low pre-term birth rate," Greenberg said.

He added there is simply not enough data to even show moms are using the boxes in Finland. For now, he’s not comfortable with the lack of research.

“We have very limited enthusiasm for the baby box at Cradle Cincinnati and at Cincinnati Childen's because it really hasn't been studied in a careful (way), and that's not as much plausibility that it has an impact as people might imply," Greenberg said.

You won’t find free baby boxes at the Cincinnati Health Department, but the department will provide low-income parents and caretakers with a free crib through a nationwide “Cribs for Kids” program.

The “Pack 'n Play” crib comes with newborn necessities, including a sleep sack to keep parents from putting blankets in the crib that could suffocate babies and a onesie to remind parents that babies sleep safest on their backs.

Hamilton County’s African-American community is three times as likely to experience infant death, which is why the program hammers home the ABCs of safe sleep.

"It means so much. We've had mothers that walk out with tears in their eyes because they're like, ‘I don't know what I was going to do. I didn't know where my baby was going to sleep,’” said Tameika Gray of the Cincinnati Health Department. “It's a blessing to be able to take part in this."

Watch Gray and Katharine Wilhelm of the Cincinnati Health Department discuss the Cribs for Kids program in the video player below.

WKHM: Cribs for Kids from CHD on Vimeo.

To participate in the program, call 513-564-BABY or call 211 for the United Way and they will connect callers with a crib. To obtain a baby box, call Brave Choices at 513-212-8176.

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