Baby Dies in First Week at Daycare & His Mom Wants to Help Us Learn From It

 Joey Freidenreich

Almost exactly two years ago, my friend Hava dropped her baby boy Joey off at daycare, and the unthinkable happened. Sadly, since then, Hava has become an expert of sorts about SIDS and daycare safety. Her life will never be the same -- but she's sharing her story, and her advice, in the hopes it will save another mom from suffering the same heartbreak.





The day started like any other for Hava and Avi Freidenreich: Avi went off to work and Hava dropped their children off at daycare at the Above and Beyond Daycare Center in Highland Park, New Jersey. Her oldest daughter had been there since infancy, and their son Joey, only 9 weeks old, had just started a few days prior.

As do many moms who are leaving their babies in those first weeks, Hava felt nervous. She drove around the block to watch the children playing outside to calm her nerves before heading off to work as a high school biology teacher. Hava wasn't thrilled to be leaving her baby at just two months old, but she'd decided that it would have been highly disruptive for her students to start off the school year with a substitute, and thus returned to work earlier than she might have otherwise preferred.

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A few hours into the school day, Hava looked up and saw her mother-in-law standing in her classroom doorway. In that moment, her life changed forever. Hava's mother-in-law said that Joey had been rushed to the hospital with breathing difficulties. On the way to the hospital, Hava called Avi to let him know what was happening. She prayed that it was a minor incident -- but when she walked into the hospital and a police officer greeted her, she says she knew.

JoeyBaby Joey, 2 months old

The weeks following their baby's death were a blur for Hava and Avi. "Joey had been a horrible sleeper, up every hour all night long for days on end, but that sleep deprivation was nothing in comparison to how we felt after he died," Hava told me. "During the day we were surrounded by family and friends. Avi and I would cry until we collapsed of exhaustion, sleep for a couple hours only to wake up, realize what happened, and repeat the cycle."

Joey's death was initially reported as a tragic sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) case. But in the weeks and months following their loss, the Freidenreiches learned the disturbing circumstances of their son's death at a licensed and well-respected daycare center. According to news reports, the daycare workers admitted to putting baby Joey facedown in his crib while swaddled. He was left alone for two hours -- even though Hava says he had never napped that long before.

These circumstances were recorded on video, but it's not clear from video evidence or the testimony of the daycare worker in charge of the infant if Joey was even placed with his head turned to the side. It is due to these contributing factors that the medical examiner ultimately declined to classify the death as a SIDS case.  

Not long after Joey's death, the Freidenreiches became pregnant again, and Hava gave birth to a healthy baby boy last October.

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"We have been blessed with another son, but he is his own unique person -- not a replacement for his brother," Hava told me. "He's brought so much joy into our lives, but his older brother is still missing."

Understandably, she decided to take off the entire school year in order to be with her new baby at home. Recently, though, Hava and Avi have been looking into daycare options for their new son, and they've also had friends ask for advice on choosing a safe daycare provider for their own children. Hava -- and all of her friends and family -- now understand this decision can mean the difference between life and death.

"We will continue to wonder about the boy Joey would have grown into if he had been properly cared for at his daycare," Hava says.

According to the National Institute of Health, most SIDS deaths happen when babies are between 1 month and 4 months of age. That's one reason that daycare can be one of the more dangerous places for infants -- especially in the first weeks of life.  

Hava told me, "It's crazy that so many people start work the same time that their babies are most vulnerable."

Of course, going back to work is a reality for millions of families -- and there are plenty of safe and loving options out there, when it comes to childcare. So, what can other parents learn from Freidenreiches when choosing a daycare for our own children?

Don't assume anything:

In every pregnancy magazine and book, Hava recalled reading about SIDS, but never thought it could happen to her family. Joey was delivered on time via a natural delivery, exclusively breastfed, and lived in a non-smoking home. He had none of the known risk factors for SIDS, except one major one: He was placed on his back to sleep at home, but in daycare, he was placed on his stomach.

Even if parents do everything right at home, as Hava did, babies can be even more at risk if their caregivers do not. According to First Candle, a nonprofit dedicated to SIDS awareness, babies who usually sleep on their back are at a significantly increased risk of SIDS when placed to sleep on their stomach by a well-intentioned but ill-informed relative or caregiver.

So, when parents come to her asking for advice, Hava's biggest piece is this: Don't assume daycare workers, even those in licensed centers, know about safe sleep recommendations.

"The people watching your kids ... may not be as well-informed about SIDS risks as parents," Have told me. "Joey's daycare worker insists she had no idea this could happen ... There were three other people in the room and nobody noticed."

Visit during nap-time:

The circumstances regarding Joey's death were not an isolated incident -- the daycare center had a pattern of unsafe behavior, according to the prosecutor who investigated the case and who watched video footage of the infant room. He saw a worker placing a blanket over a baby's head during naptime to block out light, and other instances of babies being places on their stomachs.

Hava told me, "Joey was just the unlucky one."

Talking to childcare workers about what you expect when they are caring for your child is important. But Hava also recommends visiting during nap time. Become familiar with your state's regulations and ascertain if other regulations are being followed. If the daycare center is asking for loose blankets or lets babies sleep in swings -- despite state regulations banning them -- she cautions they might be careless about other safety regulations when parents aren't looking.

Look for cameras:

Hava also suggests only using a center which has cameras, ideally ones that parents can check in on throughout the day. It's human nature that employees behave more carefully when they think they may be being watched, she points out.

Even if your babies have been in daycare before, a few simple conversations and careful observations about the layout of a daycare and the behavior of its employees are easy and valuable steps to ensure the safety of all babies in the program.

There's nothing that can take away the heartache that Hava, Avi, their daughter, and their extended families experienced that fall day. While they may have had another baby boy join their family the year following Joey's death, any parent knows that there is no replacing a child, nor is it possible to undo the unfathomable pain of his senseless loss. Hava generously shared with me Joey's story with the hope that no other family will experience the same heartache her family did. 



Bethany Mandel is a freelance writer and stay-at-home mother in New Jersey. She writes on politics, culture, and Jewish issues from a politically conservative perspective -- and all opinions here are her own. You can follow her on Twitter @bethanyshondark.

Image via Hava and Avi Freidenreich



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