Sudden, Unexplained Deaths Are on the Rise Among Black Infants

Death rates rose among non-Hispanic Black infants before and during the COVID-19 pandemic, a report reveals.

While overall infant mortality continued its steady decline through 2020, the sudden unexpected infant death (SUID) rate remained unchanged from 2015 to 2020, according to the report published in the journal Pediatrics. The SUIDs include sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), accidental suffocation and strangulation in bed, and ill-defined cause of death.

Despite overall trends, SUIDs increased among infants born to non-Hispanic Black families. The rate is now 2.3-fold higher than the general population and 2.8-fold higher than infants born to non-Hispanic white families, further increasing "the already existing disparities in these deaths."

The report's authors note that disparities in COVID-19 infection rates do not explain the increased rate of SUIDS because most deaths were not linked to a COVID-19 diagnosis. Instead, these disparities may reflect multiple factors, including poverty levels, limited access to prenatal and well-child care, and lack of education regarding safe sleep practices.

Moreover, the variations in SUIDs rates may result from changing diagnostic criteria. For example, the National Association of Medical Examiners altered sudden infant deaths' classification on death certificates in 2019. The report authors emphasize that without standardization of death certification, it is "almost impossible" to track actual trends in the subcategories of SUID.

Racial disparities in healthcare have a devastating impact not only on babies but also on their mothers. Research shows that Black women are 3.4 times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women. The COVID-19 pandemic further exacerbated disparities, as the maternal death rate for non-Hispanic Black women increased from 44.0 per 100,000 live births in 2019 to 68.9 in 2021.

Making sure your baby is safe at night

Sudden infant death syndrome, or SIDS, is the unexplained death of a seemingly healthy baby less than a year old that usually occurs in their sleep. Research shows there are several ways to reduce the risk:

  • Always place the baby on their back to sleep, for naps and at night.
  • Use a firm and flat sleep surface covered by a fitted sheet with no other bedding or soft items in the sleeping area.
  • Breastfeed your baby.
  • Keep your baby in the same room but on a separate surface designed for infants, at least for the first six months. Ideally, you should share your room with the baby for their first year.
  • Consider giving your baby a pacifier for naps and nighttime sleep, but do not attach it to anything.
  • Do not let your baby get too hot during sleep.

While taking precautions may help to prevent sudden infant deaths in their sleep, more complex measures addressing health and economic disparities are necessary to curb SUIDs rates among racial and ethnic minorities.

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