Can Putting Your Baby to Bed Be a Crime?

A mother was charged with murder after her baby accidentally died while sleeping on his stomach.

12.29.15 11:45 PM ET

After a jarring return to work and some prodding from our famously eager pediatrician, my husband and I have started “cry-it-out” with our 4-month-old son—a brutal, if necessary, method where exhausted parents train their babies to sleep by ignoring their cries. Last night, after our baby cried, then quieted himself several times during a 10-hour stretch, I went to fetch him for a morning feed and felt my throat fall into my stomach.

My baby had wiggled during the night and the fancy swaddle I used to wrap his arms tightly at 7 p.m. was now resting around his neck. My mind flashed with the threat I know loose bedding to be: suffocation, strangulation, death. His eyes peeked out at me through his nearly covered face.

Five years ago, in the middle of another sleepless stretch with my first son, my parenting fail was by choice. I looked at my 2-month-old baby, strong enough to bust himself loose out of my swaddles yet still unable to control the tremors in his hands or the reflex that made him feel like he was falling all the time. And so, I decided to join the number of parents who hide a dark secret: I turned my baby on his belly and let him sleep, which he did, for hours longer than he ever had before.

I revisited these and dozens of other errors I’ve made as a parent this morning—because around the same time I was imagining what might have happened had I not picked up my new baby when I did, The Washington Post reported another mother in Virginia had been charged with murder and child neglect for a mistake that led to the death of her son, Jahari.

Candice Semidey, 25-years-old at the time, was a new mother to a 4-month-old. She fed him, swaddled him, then lay him belly-down on a makeshift bed she fashioned out of a chair cushion and a blanket, according to the Prince William County Police public information officer, Sergeant Jonathan Perok. Semidey went to sleep, but when she woke up, her baby was dead. And according to the Prince William County prosecutor, placing Jahari on his stomach to sleep this way was so negligent it was murder.

Jahari’s death was unintentional, Perok told The Daily Beast. His mother wasn’t under the influence of any drugs or alcohol. Nothing else about her home concerned police or made them think the baby had otherwise been neglected, Perok said.

“These actions, however unintentional, were still deemed neglectful in accordance with the code section for felony murder which states, ‘The killing of one accidentally, contrary to the intention of the parties, while in the prosecution of some felonious act,’” Perok wrote in an email. “The underlying felonious act in this case was the felony child neglect.”

In the criminal complaint, the lead detective wrote that Semidey had acted in a manner “that was so gross, wanton, and culpable” that it showed “a reckless disregard for human life.” The charging documents noted that she had received proper guidance on how to put her son to sleep after his birth.

Semidey pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and child neglect in July of 2015, and was given a suspended sentence of five years. She’ll stay out of prison if she completes a three-year supervised probation.

Most parents used to put their babies to sleep on their tummies until the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) began telling them to put their infants to sleep on their backs. In 1994, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development began the “Back to Sleep” campaign, a federally funded push to stem fatalities from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). As a result, unexplained sleep deaths in the U.S. have fallen drastically—by more than 50 percent. Still, around 3,500 infants die unexpectedly while sleeping, from SIDS or accidental suffocation.

But lots of parents still eschew doctors’ advice in exchange for a good night’s sleep. In 1992, about 70 percent of babies slept on their stomachs, according to the National Infant Sleep Position Study. In 2010, that number fell to 13.5 percent. For African-American mothers like Semidey, the rate of stomach sleeping rises to 27.6 percent.

Is this a crime? Clearly it is in Prince William County.

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But to charge a grieving mother for murder, for making a mistake that millions of other mothers make every night, seems like a terrifying overreach. And Sergeant Perok told me the charge against Semidey wasn’t exceptional. “We in Prince William County don’t charge it often, but it’s not unusual,” he said.

The most recent example I could find of a similar charge was in 2010, when a woman was charged with child neglect over the drowning death of her 9-month-old daughter. Julia Sumo had left her daughter in the tub to investigate a burning smell coming from the kitchen. When she returned, her daughter was dead. Sumo was “beside herself with grief” over her “grave mistake,” according to her husband, but the judge said “some recognition has to be given to the fact that a life was lost,” and imposed 60 days of jail time.

Mothers are expected to be hyper-vigilant at all times, and for good reason: Tiny, vulnerable people depend on us. But every single one of us, even the best mother, has her stories. Every mother has felt the lump in her chest that comes with seeing her baby caught in blankets or finding a toddler who slipped away during the one moment she took her eye away in the supermarket. Every mother has had a moment when she realizes how close she has come to tragedy and feels relief that, this time, her baby is safe.

Candice Semidey’s baby is gone. It’s a tragedy, not a crime.