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How One Illinois Nonprofit Supports New Mothers, Promotes Safe Sleep

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Across much of the Midwest, maternal and infant death rates are high—especially among African-Americans. So doctors, public health agencies and non-profit organizations are searching for solutions.

Among them is Sistering CU in Champaign-Urbana, Ill. It offers free home visits from trained volunteers to families with babies up to six months in age. It also recently launched a support group for new parents.

Credit Sistering CU Facebook page

Co-founder Erin Murphy spoke with Side Effects Public Media about a new initiative to promote safe sleep habits and support families.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

What is Sistering CU all about?

Sistering CU is a nonprofit organization run entirely by volunteers. We target families who have just had a baby, whether that's through adoption or birth. Our programs focus on sending a volunteer to go to their home for two hours a week for 12 visits to help them as they recover and transition to becoming a mom becoming a dad and getting used to having a family life. It takes help to do that, we believe.

Credit Sistering CU Facebook page
Sistering CU co-founder Erin Murphy (center) holds a certificate from the Community Foundation of East Central Illinois, which awarded the organization a grant to purchase Baby Boxes for new mothers.

There's a new grant-funded effort that you are doing right now involving Baby Boxes. What are Baby Boxes are and what purpose do they serve?

Baby Boxes are an idea that was developed first in Finland in the 1930s, and today, every single family in Finland gets a baby box. The box serves a double purpose. It holds diapers, bottles, things that you might need for bringing home a new baby. But the box itself is also a safe place for the baby to sleep, like a bassinet. You can move it from room to room, because it's a cardboard box, but inside, there's a mattress and some sheets.

So it's a comfortable, lightweight, safe place for the baby to go from room to room, or to sleep on the floor next to you. And it's shown to reduce rates of SIDS for families that don't have a place that's safe for baby to sleep.

In some states, like Virginia, I learned every new family is sent home with a Baby Box?

Yes, there are some other states like that: New Jersey and Louisiana had a program as well. So when we heard about this idea, we were so inspired because it's both a practical, useful tool for the family, and also a symbol of support, like, what you're doing is really important, it really matters, it's good for the community for you to be healthy, for your family to be healthy. We're just thrilled to be able to start the program. Fifty boxes is a small start, but it's start.

You also recently started a new parent support group. Can you tell me about that?

We share tips, like what worked for you for sleeping, what didn't work for you? And the truth is, some babies just don't sleep. And that's okay, and we can talk about it. and it doesn't mean you're a bad mom or dad that you can't get your baby to take two-hour naps.

I think one of the hardest things is to know that it's normal to need help and to want help at the beginning, and we don't have to do it all on our own. - Erin Murphy, Sistering CU Co-founder

Anything else you'd like to share?

We are recruiting more families. I think one of the hardest things is to know that it's normal to need help and to want help at the beginning, and we don't have to do it all on our own. It takes a village and we have lost our villages around us, living in a transient community or far away from grandparents or our close friends and neighbors who would have helped us.

We want to be that village. We just want to be there and support you because we do believe what you're doing is really important; we believe you're important. So we just want to be there to support you.

This story was produced by Side Effects Public Media, a news collaborative covering public health.

Follow Christine on Twitter: @CTHerman

Christine Herman is the managing editor for Side Effects Public Media