Early this morning, a good friend (who lives in a split level home) sent me this heartbreaking story published last year in Women’s Day, which details a parent's worst nightmare—a child dying in the middle of the night, in his or her own room, out of the sight of the parents.
Yet, in “Why Sleeping On a Separate Floor from Your Children Can Put Them In Danger” (complete with the gut wrenching subtitle “I never would have imagined that would be the last time I would see her alive”) parents are led to believe that sleeping on a separate floor is the thing that's dangerous to children. Yet, according to the article, the child died due to a faulty heater:
Sammie died of hyperthermia as a result of a malfunctioning heater. The thermostat was set on 72 degrees but the heater upstairs was blasting, bringing the temperature to over 100 degrees in Sammie's room. Because Keri and her husband were sleeping downstairs, they had no way of knowing the temperature upstairs was reaching dangerously high levels.
Yet, you don’t have to live on a separate floor for this to happen. How do I know this? Because it happened to me–and I sleep on the same level, just feet away from my kids.
Here's what happened: years ago, exhausted after dealing with my three kids (all under four), I was putting my baby down to sleep and turned on the space heater in his room (much needed as our old house doesn’t heat rooms evenly and though still livable, that little nursery would get very cold). The heater was always set at a comfortable 70 or 72 degrees but curious little fingers had messed with the dial the morning before and, unbeknownst to me, had turned it up to 97 degrees. When I left the room that night, the room was comfortably warm. Usually I would have stay out of the nursery until morning (and been dead asleep within seconds of hitting the pillow), but that night I had some work to finish up and when I realized, about an hour later, that I’d left my glass of water on the side table next to the rocking chair, I tiptoed back in, worrying that the water would be spilled in the morning by those same curious hands.
When I opened the door, I was hit by a wall of hot air. I alway hated that literary flourish–"hit with a wall of hot air"…that is, until my short 2005 stay in New Orleans when I was doing aid work after Hurricane Katrina. I was living on an air craft carrier and was daily amazed when, leaving the ship for the FEMA office on the dock, I would open the large door to the outside deck area of the ship and be–you guessed it–hit with a wall of hot air. The difference between the morgue-like temperature at which the Navy kept the U.S.S. Iwo Jima compared to the heavy, swampy and ludicrously hot Louisiana air couldn't have been more ghastly. The first time I felt that extreme heat and humidity on my face, chest and the front of my legs, while the back of my head and body ramained cool, I knew why writers wrote that overused phrase.
That’s exactly what I felt when I walked into the nursery.
Shocked and horrified in equal measure, I screamed my husband’s name (waking the other two kids…super!) and grabbed the baby who was wet with sweat and groggy. I took him out of the sweltering room, ran to my room and laid him on our cool sheets. My husband turned the thermostat down and the ceiling fan up to high, and we fanned him with a magazine. The baby was fine but red with heat and hard to wake up because of his deep sleep.
Would my baby have woken up and screamed in his crib? Probably not. Would we have realized the situation if I hadn’t remember the water? No–of this I'm certain. Why? Because the room was sealed off—the door closed. We live in an old house, with old, heavy, solid wooden doors. While the hallway might have gotten somewhat warmer, our room would not have noticeably heated up. Meanwhile, the nursery would have heated to dangerous levels and we would have slept through it.
I don’t really want to contemplate what might have happened if I hadn’t gone back to his room that night but the point is, sleeping on a different floor than you children—as millions of owner of split level, split entry, raised ranch-style, and some cape cod style houses do each night—do not present an inherent risk to children.
While this story is indeed a tragedy, faulty heaters and similarly horrifying accidents are rare. Let's not use these rare cases to create panic for the the millions of American families who live in these homes.