HAMMOND — A baby dies about once a week in Lake and Porter counties.

A local nonprofit organization has received funding to try to change that.

Mental Health America of Lake County recently was awarded a Safety PIN (Protecting Indiana's Newborns) grant from the state to try to reduce the rate of infant deaths in the Region.

The organization held meetings Friday to discuss how it planned to spend the money and connect with other agencies that aim to keep babies alive.

"Every baby deserves to celebrate his or her first birthday," said Renae Vania-Tomczak, president and CEO of Mental Health America of Lake County.

Indiana has the eighth-highest infant mortality rate in the nation. The state's alarming number of infant deaths was the subject of a recent Times series, "What's Killing Indiana's Infants."

Locally, Northwest Indiana has among the highest infant mortality rates in the state. East Chicago had the highest rate of any Indiana ZIP code between 2010 and 2014, while ZIP codes in Hammond, Merrillville, LaPorte and Michigan City were in the top 25.

Late last year, the Indiana State Department of Health awarded $12.9 million in grants to 10 organizations around the state working to reduce infant mortality.

Mental Health America is set to receive $1.1 million over the next four years. The organization is guaranteed half of that money and will get the second half if infant mortality falls in Lake and Porter counties by the end of 2018.

The money will fund the distribution of baby sleep bundles, the Baby & Me Tobacco Free program and gifts for breastfeeding moms.

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The sleep bundles are modeled after the baby boxes that are given to new parents in the country of Finland, which has one of the lowest infant mortality rates in the world. The mattress-lined cardboard boxes ensure that infants have a safe sleeping environment.

Public health experts say that babies always should sleep alone, on their backs and in cribs (the "ABCs" of safe sleep). Accidental suffocation or strangulation in bed is the third leading cause of death for Indiana infants.

The free bundles will be available to any parent or caregiver, regardless of income, who is an Indiana resident and completes an online infant sleep education course. The bundles also contain diapers and other baby supplies.

Baby & Me Tobacco Free provides free diapers to women who quit smoking during their pregnancies. Smoking can cause low birth weights and harm a baby's lungs, heart and sleep arousal, potentially leading to sudden infant death syndrome.

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Participants have to go to four prenatal and 12 postnatal sessions and blow into a carbon monoxide monitor to prove they've quit smoking. They are then eligible for a $25 diaper voucher for each of their baby's first 12 months.

The program is open to all pregnant women and their partners, as long as they are Indiana residents.

Mental Health America of Lake County also offers free, one-hour safe sleep education classes to all parents and caregivers from Indiana. Upon completion, participants receive a free Pack 'n Play portable crib.

"Our goal here is for every pregnant woman in Lake County to be touched by our infant safe sleep program," said Victor Garcia, vice president of operations for Mental Health America of Lake County. "Just because you can afford the Pack 'n Play doesn't mean you understand safe sleep. The important piece of this is the education. If you don't need the Pack 'n Play, send it to grandma's house or an aunt's house."

Mental Health America of Lake County also does the Healthy Families, Parents as Teachers and Empowering Teens as Parents home visitation programs. Participants who breastfeed will now receive free breastfeeding covers as an incentive. Research shows that breastfeeding lowers infant mortality because it prevents and reduces the severity of infections, improves respiratory function and causes babies to be more easily aroused from sleep.

To enroll in any Mental Health America of Lake County program, call 219-937-7733, ext. 200, visit mhalakecounty.org or go to 5311 Hohman Ave. in Hammond or 5201 Fountain Drive, Suite C in Crown Point.

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Health Reporter

Giles is the health reporter for The Times, covering the business of health care as well as consumer and public health. He previously wrote about health for the Lawrence (Kansas) Journal-World. He is a graduate of Northern Illinois University.