The City of Milwaukee newest campaign to curb the number of co-sleeping deaths. Ad copy courtesy City of Milwaukee Health Department.

The City of Milwaukee new campaign to reduce co-sleeping infant deaths is getting a lot of attention. It is doing exactly what it was intended to do – start discussion.

But is it starting discussions between the right people?

The ads show babies sleeping on adult beds, full of pillows, blankets and… a butcher knife. The copy reads, “Your baby sleeping with you can be just as dangerous.”

Infant co-sleeping deaths have reached 10 as of Nov. 19 in Milwaukee, with the majority of the deaths occurring in poor, African-American neighborhoods.  The children were either sleeping with a caregiver in an adult bed or coach, where the caregiver either rolled onto the child or allowed the child to become wedged between their body and the couch cushions or between the headboard and mattress.

There were other factors in these infants deaths. Typically, the caregiver was drunk or taking drugs (either legal or illegal) and there was an available crib or Pack n’ Play in the home.

The Pack n’ Plays are provided to low-income families by the city in an effort to reduce co-sleeping, but in some cases, these portable cribs are used to store the child’s clothing and toys, or in one instance, the crib was being used as a garbage can.

Outrage about the ad campaign has reached across the nation, with the TODAY Show’s Dr. Nancy Snyderman and adman extrodinaire Donny Deutsch debated its merits. Snyderman said the ad was over the top, while Deutsch fell back on the old yarn, “if it saves just one child’s life, it is successful.”

There is even a Facebook page “Campaign Against Milwaukee’s Co-Sleeping Campaign” that is calling for an end to the ad.

I personally think the ad is effective, but it is missing the point.

First, the target audience for these ads – young, poor, possibly poor-educated men and women – will get the wrong message. “Don’t let you baby sleep with a knife.” No duh.

Second, the target for any campaign to end unsafe sleeping practices or other behaviors that jeopardize babies should be directed at those most influencial to young mothers – their mothers, grandmothers and aunts.

When I was a young mother, I relied on the advice of my mother and mother-in-law concerning my new baby. Teething nightmares? there was an old German cure for that (a little Peppermint Schnapps on the gums). Weird, green bowel movements? Lay off the peas and beans for a few days. Collic? Take the baby for a walk or a ride in the car.

I didn’t look to the public health department or a book – even though I had plenty of “What to expect” books on the shelves and stopped at the health department each month to pick up my WIC checks.

I relied on what my mom and mother-in-law said about what to do, since they had already successfully raised eight children to adulthood between them with nothing more serious than chicken pox and an occasional broken arm.

We are often told that co-sleeping is part of the African-American culture. It is a way to foster closeness within a family. But when it is done in a dangerous way – when the adult is drunk or high, when the adult makes poor choices because they are getting poor advice – we need to change the culture.

We, as a community, need to get the message out to the people young mothers and fathers listen to, who they go to for advice. We need to change the mindset of mothers, grandmothers and aunts who get the phone call in the middle of the night, who dispense their wisdom to trusting, nervous and scared young mothers.

Showing a baby in a bed with a knife makes for some great talk, but the City of Milwaukee and other communities facing this type of crisis need to make sure the talk is between the right people.

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