Parents sleeping with their babies in Maine have caused the deaths of five infants in the first seven weeks of the year. The co-sleeping fatalities are on pace to outstrip the state’s average annual rate and prompted the chief medical examiner to urge parents to sleep separately from their babies.

“If you do it, you are inviting a major tragedy,” Dr. Mark Flomenbaum said of co-sleeping. He could not detail what happened in each case because of patient confidentiality. The babies were all under 4 months old.

The five deaths since the beginning of the year represent about half the annual average of babies who die in Maine because of unsafe sleeping practices, which include co-sleeping and things such as putting a baby down to sleep on a soft couch, according to the Medical Examiner’s Office. Maine typically sees about 10-12 such deaths per year.

Flomenbaum said he has “no idea” what has caused the spike this winter, but thought cold weather could be a factor, with more snuggling between parents and children. The five deaths were deemed accidental by the Maine Attorney General’s Office.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends against sharing a bed with babies, even when precautions are taken, such as making sure not to drink alcohol, and keeping soft pillows out of the bed.

Dr. Jennifer Hayman, a pediatrician who works at Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital at Maine Medical Center, said babies are 40 times more likely to die when co-sleeping with adults. Other risk factors – such as drinking alcohol or taking over-the-counter cold medication – create even higher risks for babies.

“You can’t co-sleep with your baby safely,” Hayman said. “I tell parents it’s a rare event when a child dies during bed sharing, but when it does happen, there’s no going back. There’s no getting your baby back.”

Hayman, a member of Maine’s Safe Sleep Coalition, said most parents seem to be convinced when told about the risks, but she’s concerned the message is not getting out.

According to a 2013 National Institutes of Health study, co-sleeping with infants has increased from 7 percent of families in 1993 to 14 percent in 2010, as cultural attitudes have shifted in favor of bed sharing.

Advocates of co-sleeping say that when done properly it’s safe, babies bond better with their parents, and the children reap emotional benefits when they get older. But Hayman, who has read numerous studies on the issue and studied cases of bed sharing deaths in Maine, said that any perceived benefits to the baby are not worth the risks. She noted there are plenty of opportunities to bond with the child when the baby is awake. Maine Attorney General Janet Mills encouraged parents to resist the desire to sleep with their infants.

“The first weeks and months of being a parent can be exhausting, but I urge parents to heed the advice of experts and adhere to safe sleep practices,” Mills said in a statement. “The temptation to get a quick nap or to provide warmth is also an opportunity for smothering a baby quite unintentionally. Please, please, do not have your infant sleep with you.

“Each child is a precious and fragile being and should be treated with great care.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics says the safest spot for babies to sleep is in a separate crib or bassinet in the same room as the parents.