Shantell Roberts can remember the exact time her mother called her at work to say that she’d found Roberts’ 1-year-old daughter unresponsive in the bed. It was 9:48 a.m. – and the moment everything in her life changed.
Tylour Marie had been sick with a fever and vomiting, but doctors didn’t seem too worried, telling Roberts to come back in three days if her daughter hadn’t improved. At the time, it all seemed fairly routine.
But the viral infection doctors thought Tylour had turned out to be MRSA pneumonia, and, despite doing everything doctors told her to do, on the day after Valentine’s Day in 2011, Roberts’ baby girl died.
Afterward, “I did a lot of grief therapy and met other mothers who lost their children,” Roberts says. “The cause of death that was peculiar to me was SIDS [Sudden Infant Death Syndrome]. I didn’t really understand it. And even though we were all in the same boat, I, at least, had a reason why my daughter died. She was sick. These mothers didn’t even have that. So I started looking into it. I wanted to learn more about it.”
In 2012, Roberts created Touching Young Lives, Inc., a nonprofit focused on public education for best practices in infant care.
“After going through therapy, I wanted to make sure no other parent felt or experienced what my family felt and experienced,” Roberts’ says. “I would never want that to happen to someone else’s family.”
Roberts will use her OSI-Baltimore Community Fellowship to implement a new sleeping method for children, the Portable Alternative Crib (P.A.C.), which she has exhaustively researched and found to be a safe way to combat SIDS in the city and across the region.
A concept first introduced by the Finnish, Roberts says the P.A.C. is a simple cardboard baby box, with a firm padding at the bottom. The box’s design cuts down on the negative effects of bed-sharing, such as possible suffocation, Roberts says.
“The American Academy of Pediatrics says that ‘safe sleep’ means babies have a separate sleeping space that is secure, firm and flat,” Roberts says. “The P.A.C. serves as baby’s first sleeping space and once the baby grows out of it, it can be used as a storage space.”
Putting a baby in a box to sleep is not an entirely new idea, she says. Families of limited means have long used dresser drawers as bassinets, for example, or laundry baskets.
But Roberts wants to educate all parents about safe sleeping methods for babies and to make use of the P.A.C. a common and accepted idea, no matter the new mother’s background or socio-economic status.
“In 2009, there were over 20 infant sleep-related deaths. These were babies that were not given an opportunity,” she says.
Last year, Temple University Hospital launched an innovative Baby Box initiative, which Roberts studied carefully. Now she is working on researching and developing her own model.
“This OSI Fellowship means creative freedom and the ability to touch as many lives as I possibly can,” Roberts says. “I am so excited about this possibility. Since I created the nonprofit in 2012 it’s always been the second half of myself. Now I can fully pour into these new and emerging parents. I get teary-eyed just thinking about it. From such a tragic situation, all of this is flourishing.”