In September of 2018, Owen Copney fell asleep with his 1-month old Isaiah on his chest. When Copney woke up his son had shifted face down in the crook of his father’s arm. Smothered by Copney’s body, the infant had stopped breathing. Isaiah died in a hospital two days later.
Last week, Copney was charged with felony involuntary manslaughter and felony child endangerment. The charges were filed after he admitted to having been warned by the child’s mother not to do to exactly what he did. The case is a terrible reminder that sleeping with an infant on your chest — as many exhausted fathers are seen doing on social media — can lead to tragedy.
Dads might be forgiven for thinking that sleeping with a baby on their chest is an acceptable option. The internet is flooded with pictures of conked out dads cradling sleeping infants to their chest — it’s powerful and simple shorthand for being an involved father. It’s a sweet image — and a horrible one. What is being depicted isn’t just devotion, it’s negligence and risk. Parents need to know this, as Copney did, and to understand the seriousness of the stakes, as he clearly did not.
Falling asleep with an infant of your chest places the child at increased risk of entrapment and suffocation deaths. It’s that simple. The child can roll. The father can shift. And couch and chair cushions can easily suffocate. As simple and natural as it might feel to have a warm baby sleeping quietly against your chest, there is only one safe way for a baby to sleep: one their backs, with minimal bedding, in a crib or bassinet. Sleeping on a couch or sofa increases the likelihood of Sudden Infant Death syndrome 67-fold and deaths on couches accounted for nearly 13 percent of sleep-related infant deaths in 2017 alone.
Yes, he and his wife might have discussed safe sleep. But a false sense of security, an urge to be close to your son, and the fatigue of a new father is a powerful combination. In Copney’s circumstance, it was a deadly combination. Should he have known better? That’s now for a jury to decide.
Copney’s story is not an object lesson, it’s a tragedy. Isaiah is dead, his life cut short by carelessness, foolishness, laziness, or some combination thereof. He’s not coming back. But what dads can take away from this wretched fact is that some things aren’t negotiable. Gravity is one of them.
Every time you feel drowsy as you cuddle with your new kid, the best choice is always to place the baby on their back in their crib before you drift off. Lives may depend on it.