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Fifteen children died while sharing beds with adults, the public advocate revealed last week, a 200 percent increase over 2003. A parent’s obesity or substance abuse is often blamed for such a death, but another factor is rarely mentioned: overcrowded apartments.

Out of the 15 “rollover” deaths investigated by the state last year, 12 were in homes with an average of more than one person per room, City Limits has learned. (The U.S. Census defines a crowded apartment as having more than one person per room; the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development uses 1.5 per room.)

In July 2004, for instance, a two-month-old infant died in the bunk bed he shared with his mother and six-year-old sibling. Their two-bedroom apartment was home to 14 people, with a curtain used to divide the living room into two bedrooms. Although the family had been advised to use a crib, it is unclear whether they had one.

Crowding like this is on the rise, according to the New York City Housing and Vacancy Survey. Roughly 11.1 percent of renter households were crowded in 2002, compared to 10.2 percent in 1993.

Though one can’t draw a causal link, the connection makes sense, says Susan Saegert, a professor of environmental psychology at CUNY Graduate Center. “You don’t need a researcher to tell you that,” she said. Her research has shown that parents in overcrowded or substandard housing also tend to be less attentive to their children overall. “If you want to fix these problems you have to look downstream from housing,” she said.

Still, overcrowding is just one of many factors in cosleeping deaths, and probably not the most significant. In 12 out of the 15 cases, a crib or bassinette was actually present in the apartment. “There’s a lot of cultural stuff going on in terms of wanting to bond with the baby, not wanting to see the baby cry,” notes Katherine Teets Grimm, medical director of the Children’s Advocacy Center of Manhattan, who consulted on some of the fatality investigations. “This is really a sensitive area.”

Cassi Feldman

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