In Memory of Shepard

Yesterday was the one year anniversary of my college friend Ali losing her baby boy.

You know how some occasions stay markedly in your mind? I'll never forget. Georgia was napping. I had just finished cleaning up the kitchen and decided to browse Facebook while I ate a popsicle.

The first post I saw was Ali's. "If you know us, please, please, pray for Shepard and don't stop praying."

I was confused and knew there must have been some sort of accident. Shepard was a few days shy of three months old. As far as I knew he was healthy and Ali had just returned to work the week before.

I commented that I was praying and clicked enter to post. During the time I was typing my quick sentence, Ali updated with: "Please pray for us. Shepard just died."

I got sick to my stomach and spent the rest of the afternoon in a daze. My head and heart felt so disconnected from my body. Something deep inside was telling me that things had gone horribly wrong. Of course it did - a baby died! But I kept having such a bad feeling about the whole situation.

Ali updated me later in an email, and I have never been able to read through its entirety in one sitting. My heart literally hurts and a lump grows so big in my throat that I can't breathe.

It was to be Ali's second week back at work. A Monday. She left Shepard with a trusted and licensed sitter who also watched children for some of her husband's co-workers. A sitter who has children of her own. This sitter had Shepard swaddled in a velcro swaddle, put him down to sleep in another child's carseat - completely unbuckled, closed the door and let him nap. Nobody checked on him for two hours.

When she did check on him after two hours, he was blue. He had slouched down in the infant seat, his head turned to the side, and he couldn't turn away to get air. He smothered to death. Nobody heard his cries because the door was closed.

The sitter called 911 and Ali. Ali's husband Derek got there right away and rode in the ambulance. As Shepard was being wheeled into the hospital Derek touched his baby's forehead. It was cold. I can't imagine how that must have felt.

Another thing I can't imagine is how the sitter allowed this to happen.

Ten days before she put Shepard down to nap in a carseat, she had been reprimanded by DHS. She was told, and signed paperwork stating she understood, that babies were only to be put to sleep in a crib! No swings, carseats, adult beds - cribs only. In the paperwork, the sitter specifically asked about babies sleeping in carseats and was told no - they're not safe and increase the risk of a baby dying in his or her sleep.

There are other pieces to the story that I don't understand, but that Ali is working hard to change. Namely, in Oklahoma there was no way for the Dodds to search to see if the sitter had previous violations. And that the sitter was allowed to keep her license and keep operating literally for months after a baby died in her care. (As I understand, she is no longer babysitting, but I'm not sure if she lost her license or not.) An update since I drafted this - on April 6, the anniversary of Shepard's death, Oklahoma passed two house bills that improve sleep safety standards in daycare. Click here to read, and be prepared to tear up.

I don't think a day has gone by that I don't think of that sweet happy baby and his family. I have so many emotions. A year later, I am still heartbroken that my friend lost her baby due to a sitter's negligence. I'm angry that this woman didn't heed the discipline she received a few days before taking care of Shepard. I'm confused as to why some states don't make public when childcare providers violate known safety standards. I'm upset that there's no justice for Shepard.

But most of all, I'm embarrassed. I'm embarrassed that when Georgia was born almost five years ago I chose to ignore professional advice. I had bumpers in her crib and some stuffed animals, too. I am mortified that when someone mentioned bumpers were no longer advised I so incorrectly thought that infant deaths couldn't happen to me or anyone I know.

I am grateful and feel incredibly lucky that nothing ever happened to Georgia the numerous I moved her infant carseat in from the car and let her keep napping, unbuckled. I'm glad that we didn't own a swing or other contraption because I know I would feel such guilt over having let her sleep in it. How was my child, and so many others I know, spared when Ali's was not?

Please don't let sweet Shepard's death be in vain. If you have read this far - you know better now. Stop putting a rolled blanket or pool noodle under the mattress because you think your baby has reflux and friends on your message board or Facebook did it and their babies are fine. Doctors recommend a flat sleeping surface with the exception of very few cases. Unless your doctor has recommended it, your baby needs to sleep on a crib mattress, bassinete or other approved sleep space.

Stop letting your baby sleep on his tummy. No more putting them to sleep for the night in a swing, bouncer, rock and play, nap nanny, boppy or anything else. It tells you right on the boxes that these contraptions are not for sleep. It is so, so much better to be safe than sorry!

To me - now that we know better - it would be like riding across town without putting my baby in a carseat. Yeah, the odds are that we probably won't be in an accident and she will be fine. But there's always that chance and if something did happen it would be deadly. Next time you put your baby down to rest someplace you shouldn't, please remember that comparison and remember that babies die every single day from unsafe sleep practices.

Ali shares so many news articles of babies dying in these everyday sleep situations that so many parents think are safe. So if you're reading this, now you know better. Please, please do your best to educate others - your friends, family, childcare, everyone you know. If Shepard's sweet, short little life can have any impact on our world, I hope it is that fewer babies from being put down to sleep in an unsafe place.

Please - help spread the word to others. Share this post, share Shepard's story or like Shepard's Watch on Facebook to stay informed.