Eckerd Kids, one of the nation’s largest nonprofit child and family service organizations has recently partnered with Florida Department of Children and Families and Children’s Board of Hillsborough County to reduce preventable child deaths in Tampa Bay by launching a grassroots public relations campaign titled “Warning Signs“. The 100% community funded campaign will run for three years with a mix of billboards, radio and TV ads to raise awareness about the three main causes of needless child deaths which include un-safe sleep, drowning and head trauma, (also known as Shaken Baby Syndrome).  Across Tampa Bay, 41 children under age 6 died last year from these three causes that are 100 percent preventable.

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I am thrilled to have the opportunity to bring you this important and life saving information.  Parents, pay attention, because with the proper education and knowledge, these children do not have to die and families like yours do not have to be torn apart.


ANY child can drown. ANY time. ANY place. So EVERY one of us needs to know these important facts…and SHARE them:

  • It is the leading cause of death for children ages 1-4 in the Tampa Bay region.
  • Kids under age 1 most often drown in bathtubs, buckets & toilets
  • Also dangerous: in-ground and blow-up  pools, retention ponds, canals, spas, even a pet’s water dish
  • Small kids drown without making a sound
  • Drowning begins in as little as 20 seconds
  • From parent to caregiver to homeowner, we all must take the responsibility to educate ourselves and the community on water safety dangers that are 100 percent preventable.

How do we prevent needless drownings?

  • Eliminate distractions for those watching kids near water. NO texting, phone calls, gaming, reading
  • Stay close for a quick rescue
  • Never lose sight of small kids near water Make sure fences, gates, windows and  doors between kids and water are in place and working properly
  • Learn CPR—it’s a proven life saver .

What are the Experts Saying?

Natalie Harrell, Communications Director for the SunCoast Region Florida Department of Children and Families, points out that, “Drowning isn’t like we see in the movies – it is surprisingly silent and fast. In just 20 seconds – less time than it takes to switch the laundry – a child can drown.”

While parents tend to associate drowning with pools, Harrell educates us that it can also occur in “ponds, lakes, beaches, retention ponds, buckets, pet water dishes, bathtubs, toilets – drowning can occur in places you don’t normally expect or in places where you’re not as much on your guard.” She suggests, “As soon as your child starts crawling, enroll them in a program like the ISR Self-Rescue Survival Swim Lessons and if you don’t have the funds, local non-profits like the Y often have free or reduced cost classes available.”

When I asked Natalie to share a drowning incident she worked on, her story gave me chills because it could have happened to any family. “We had a case where both parents were home and thought the other was watching the baby, who had only recently begun crawling. They thought they had everything in place to prevent tragedy – a pool fence and alarms on the doors. Sadly though, the pool fence had been left open by a couple inches while they filled the pool up with a hose. All it took was one slightly ajar door and a small opening in the fence and now that family’s life is tragically altered forever.”  I can’t even imagine how that family is coping with the loss of their child, especially knowing it was preventable.

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We know more now about the safest sleep habits for infants than we used to. Statistics like the one’s below don’t lie. Here’s what else you should know and pass along:

  • More than 100 infants died of preventable sleep-related causes in the Tampa Bay area over the last four years.
  • Infants are 40 times more likely to die in adult beds than in their own cribs
  • Nearly 74% of deaths in babies younger  than 4 months happened in a bed- sharing situation
  • Risks increase when adults smoke, use medications, alcohol or drugs, or are obese

How do we prevent needless suffocations:

  • Room-sharing offers almost all of the benefits of bed-sharing, without the risks—bring baby’s crib into the parents’ room for the first six months
  • The safest way for babies to sleep is on their back, alone in a crib
  • Keep baby’s crib safe with a tight-fitting crib sheet and firm mattress
  • Keep crib free of blankets, pillows, bumper pads & stuffed animals
  • Use a sleep sack instead of a loose blanket to keep baby safe & warm
  • We know more today than we did yesterday
    • As more information becomes available, we must let go of some practices in order to provide our children with the safest environment possible for sleeping
    • We changed our habits about car seats and lead paint; it is time to change our habits on co-sleeping

children saved

What are the experts saying?

Lisa Colen, Director of Community Outreach and Education at Healthy Start Coalition, says, “There are many reasons parents sleep with their infants.  It is an instinct to protect and nurture children so parents want to be close.  Additionally, fatigue as a result of sleep deprivations is a huge driving factor in the behavior”.

I asked Lisa if she often hears mothers telling her that their baby sleeps better on their stomach instead of their back as I have had many mom friends tell me that is why they choose to break the rules.   She says, she hears that all the time and tells the parents they have been lucky.  She notes that, “The risks are too great to take a chance….even one time.”

Lisa agrees that, “It is true that most infants sleep better on their tummies but deep sleep is not particularly the goal for newborns”, which I did not know myself.  In fact, Lisa shares that, “The restless sleep we see when they are on their backs may actually help them arouse and rebreathe if need be”.  Lisa makes a great point when she says, “There are so many opportunities during a day to bond with a newborn that sleep time should be preserved as a safe time for baby.”

Natalie Harrell, Communications Director for the SunCoast Region Florida Department of Children and Families says, “It’s also critical to have a frank conversation with all caregivers, including new grandparents. While tips and suggestions are helpful, remind them that when it comes to safe sleep practices, we know more now than we did yesterday.”

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Crying babies cause stress for most people. For people not used to it, their response to this stress can be deadly. Here’s what you need to know, and to share with EVERYONE:

  • Across Tampa Bay, more than a dozen babies and young children died in the past four years after they were shaken violently or suffered other kinds of abusive head trauma at the hands of a caregiver.
  • Parents themselves most often cause the injury or death
  • Don’t assume that a caregiver who loves you will feel the same way about your child
  • A baby’s brain is fragile just like an egg inside a shell, and can be severely, even fatally, damaged inside
    the skull when shaken
  • Infants who survive shaking can struggle with the consequences for life
  • The potty training period, up to age 4, is another critical flash point for stress and frustration
  • It’s not only shaking – but also squeezing or throwing a baby down on a bed or hard surface – that can be deadly

How do we prevent needless head traumas: 

  • Parents need to check out the background and parenting skills of any caregiver who will be entrusted with watching their child.
    • Have frank conversations with them and watch for the warning signs that a caregiver may not be responsible enough to watch your child
  • By understanding why babies cry and how to soothe them, parents and other caregivers can greatly reduce the frustration that can lead to shaking a child in their care. Remember that crying is normal for babies – it’s how they communicate
  • The lesson from these tragedies is clear: Never shake a baby

shaken baby

What are the Experts Saying?

Natalie Harrell, with SunCoast Region Florida Department of Children and Families, explains that,Babies cry frequently and can be very stressful. An infant’s brain is very fragile and shaking or even throwing a baby forcefully on a hard surface can severely, even fatally, damage a child’s brain.”  She says it is important to “Remind yourself and your significant other that when you get overwhelmed that it is perfectly OK to give yourself a time out. Put your baby in a crib and give yourself time to breathe and reduce stress.”

Cindy Franciosa and Shannon Byron have both seen the effects of SBS first hand and founded Stop Shaken Baby Syndrome, Inc., a non-profit organization based in Boston, Massachusetts, to bring awareness, education, and hopefully save lives.  Cindy says, “Research has shown that the number 1 reason for SBS has been succumbing to the frustrations of an inconsolably crying child.  This can be prevented by educating parents and caretakers with coping skills, and sharing that it’s not only okay to ask for help, it’s vital to a healthy parent/child relationship.”

She suggests these wonderful coping mechanisms:

  • Taking a break
    • We need to let parents know that it’s perfectly okay to walk away from a screaming baby to regroup and collect yourself.
    • NEVER pick up  a child in anger.
    • Make sure your baby is in a safe place (a crib for example) and walk away, checking on the child every 10 minutes or until you are calm enough to pick up the child again.
  • Make a Call
    • If you are feeling frustrated and overwhelmed by a screaming child, pick up the phone and make a call.
    • Call the parents if you are a care provider or call a trusted friend or relative.
    • Parents need to make sure there is a list of emergency numbers on your fridge when you are leaving your child with a caregiver.
  • Is the Child Ill?
    • Be aware and know your child’s typical behaviors.
    • Check the child’s temperature, check for rashes, a wet or soiled diaper, uncomfortable clothing, etc.
  • Parent Support Groups
    • –There are some excellent online parental chat groups that should be utilized.
    • You may not get the advice you seek but it’s a comfort knowing you aren’t alone and this just may be enough time for you to decompress and collect yourself.

Cindy also provided me with these scary statistics of what happens after a baby has been the victim of SBS.  “Approximately 20% of SBS victims will die within a few days of being shaken.  30% will have moderate to severe permanent disabilities, including profound developmental delays, paralysis, blindness, and some will remain in a permanent vegetative state.  Only approximately 7% of victims will grow as normal, while others present later with (any or all of the following): learning disabilities or delays, seizure disorders, and behavioral disorders, including ADD and ADHD.”

SBS can happen in an instant and in fact, Cindy points out that, “It takes just THREE (3) SECONDS to cause permanent, life-long injuries in an infant due to shaking.  It’s important to be aware that an infant’s head is a lot heavier and bulkier than their neck muscles can support.”  It is not just infants that can be victims of SBS as Cindy notes she has seen cases in children up to the age of FIVE.

I was curious as to a parent’s reaction when they discover the consequences of their actions and the harm they caused to their child.  Cindy said that, “Shocked is always the first initial reaction and most do not realize the damage, or potential damage they have done.  Everyone’s reaction is different but we’ve seen fear, grief, denial and blame on unimaginable levels.”

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Why is this happening in our community and around the world?  

According to Brandi Lazaris, Program Administrator for the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office Child Protection Investigation Division, “There are a plethora of reasons as to why parents are shaking their babies, not watching them around pools and co-sleeping. That would be an article all on its own. To sum it up the main reasons are untreated mental health, traumatic experiences of their own that were never resolved or treated, substance abuse, stress, their own upbringing and a lack of education.”  She continues on by saying, “even with educating the public there are still some parents that still decide to make poor choices.”

What are we doing to prevent these horrific tragedies in homes around the Tampa Bay Area?

Hillary Shaughnessy, Senior Director of Operations with Eckerd Kids, says that “while we can never predict human behavior, thorough background screenings are conducted on all prospective foster families, including Abuse Registry, local criminal and federal criminal clearances (fingerprinting). Background screenings and child abuse clearances are required for all household members.  Our foster parents go through licensure where they learn safe sleep, trauma informed care, learning about children in foster care to understand their trauma, working with bio-parents, understanding developmental stages and behaviors, and much more”.

Brandi Lazarus, Program Administrator for The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office Child Protection Division, shares that they are “continuously providing safety information and educational materials that cover all areas of this campaign. We work closely with numerous community partners to assist in getting this information out to all families we work with. We have a pool safety checklist that we discuss with the parents and a safe sleep form that parents of infants are required to sign. This document informs them of the risks of placing babies to sleep in a crib on their belly or in a crib, bed or other sleeping surface that has blankets, toys, other people in the same sleeping area.  We frequently refer families to parenting classes, or a home visiting program”

Lisa Colen shared information about the Healthy Start Coalition’s Safe Baby Program, which is funded by the Children’s Board of Hillsborough County.  “The program educates every family who gives birth in a Hillsborough County hospital on the three leading causes of preventable infant death which includes choosing a safe caregiver, preventing shaken baby syndrome by coping with crying and promoting safe sleep.  They provide bedside education by a nurse who reviews the main messages on all three topics.  They have educated over 3000 nurses county wide to deliver this education.  Additionally, they have trained over 10,000 professionals in the community who work with families on the same messages so parents get repetitive, consistent advice.”

What can we, the Tampa Bay Community, to do help prevent these needless child deaths?  

Natalie Harrell (SunCoast Region Florida Department of Children and Families) says, “Don’t be afraid to speak up; if you see something, say something”  She realizes that, “It can be uncomfortable to speak up to friends and family and no one wants to sound like a know it all or sound like they are criticizing someone’s parenting. The key though is sharing information in an inviting way.”

She suggests that, “if every reader shared this blog on their social media they would be educating their family and friends without sounding critical. Another suggesting is for readers to mention this blog when they are talking with family and friends in person. It can work as a great ice breaker to get down to the much needed discussions regarding their life-saving concerns.”

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These tragedies can happen to anyone, and it’s going to take all of us to save our Tampa Bay children, who are this community’s most precious gift.   Every one of us has a responsibility to keep them safe.  These deaths are 100% preventable!

Share this information with others and you could save a child from a preventable death! 

Go to to learn more about this important campaign.