Washington University pediatrician to lead $11 million Gates Foundation grant

James S. Kemp, M.D., will co-lead a campaign to prevent infant death due to unsafe sleep practices with funding from an $11 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Kemp is a professor of pediatrics at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and a pediatrician at St. Louis Children’s Hospital.

The grant, awarded to Baltimore-based First Candle, a nonprofit organization promoting infant health, will support a national campaign called “Bedtime Basics for Babies.” The campaign includes distributing cribs to families in need and educating families about the benefits of using cribs and crib safety.

More than 2,500 sudden infant deaths occur each year in the United States. According to First Candle, babies who sleep in adult beds are at up to 40 times greater risk of dying than babies sleeping on their back in a crib. In fact, in many jurisdictions, a shared sleep surface is implicated in more than 50 percent of all sudden, unexpected infant deaths.

Kemp is co-principal investigator with Rachel Moon, M.D., associate professor of pediatrics at George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences and a pediatrician at the Children’s National Medical Center.

Kemp said First Candle will use this as a pilot study and eventually implement such a program nationally.

Focusing on the states of Indiana and Washington and the District of Columbia, the researchers expect to distribute about 200,000 cribs to families in need in an effort to promote safe infant sleep practices and reduce infant mortality.

“Babies in poor families tend to share beds, either with parents or other children,” Kemp says. “Some parents believe bed sharing somehow protects their baby during sleep. There is no evidence to support this theory. To the contrary, there is much evidence that shows the adult bed, as we know it in the United States, can greatly increase the risk of SIDS and other sleep-related deaths.”

In the education component, researchers will show families how to assemble a crib, discuss why cribs are important and how to use them safely.

“We will be looking at the impact of making cribs available to families and encouraging them to put the babies to sleep on their backs, which should have an impact on sudden death during sleep,” Kemp says. “This is one big area that needs to be better understood.”

First Candle said with proof that such campaigns can save babies’ lives simply by putting them to sleep in a safe crib rather than adult beds and other unsafe places, the project has the capacity to change child-care practices nationwide, possibly saving thousands of lives.

Washington University School of Medicine’s 2,100 employed and volunteer faculty physicians also are the medical staff of Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals. The School of Medicine is one of the leading medical research, teaching and patient care institutions in the nation, currently ranked fourth in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. Through its affiliations with Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals, the School of Medicine is linked to BJC HealthCare.