The United States ranks 34th in the world in infant mortality rates among United Nations countries. It is estimated that 5.9 infants out of every 1,000 live births will die. While that is a vast improvement over fifty years ago, when the rates were five times higher, infant mortality is still a problem. The United States ranks last among industrialized nations despite spending the most on health care.
Infant mortality is defined as the death of an infant younger than one year of age. Often grouped in with infant mortality rates are childhood mortality rates, which include children five years of age and younger. Infant mortality affects a society’s potential social, human, and physical capital.
In the United States, premature birth is a major contributor to infant mortality. Of the approximately 518,000 premature babies born in the United States, those who live will have higher rates of visual, gastrointestinal, cardiovascular, respiratory, hearing, neurological, and metabolic disorders. The annual medical and social cost of premature babies in the U.S. is $26.2 billion.
Major Contributors to Infant Mortality
Low birth weight is a major contributor to infant mortality. This is a problem that seems to disproportionately affect African Americans. In the United States, births to African American mothers are twice as likely to produce low birth weight children as those to white mothers. The rate of low birth weight children in the U.S. rivals that of developing countries.
Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) is another major cause of infant mortality in the U.S. SIDS is the sudden death of a seemingly healthy baby while the child is sleeping. The specific cause of SIDS is unknown. Factors linked to SIDS include:
- Being born to a teen mother
- Premature birth
- Cigarette smoke exposure in the womb or after birth
- Babies sleeping on their stomach
- Living in poverty settings
- Sleeping in bed with parents
- Being a twin or triplet
SIDS is most likely to occur when the child is between two and three months old, and it is most likely to occur during the winter time. The Mayo Clinic suggests the most important way to avoid SIDS is to place the baby on its back to sleep on a firm crib mattress with a fitted sheet. Nothing else should be in the crib with the baby.
70 percent of childhood deaths worldwide are caused by infectious diseases. These include measles, malaria, diarrhea, bronchitis, bronchiolitis, and pneumonia. Many of these are avoided in the United States where vaccinations are readily available. Unfortunately, though, there is still a strong anti-vaccination contingent in the U.S.
Preventing Infant Mortality
Since its creation in 1962, the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) has helped reduce infant mortality by over 70 percent in the United States. One of the NICHD’s most successful programs is the “Safe to Sleep” (formerly “Back to Sleep”) campaign, which launched in 1994.
The Safe to Sleep campaign specifically targets putting an end to SIDS. The goal of the campaign is to reach parents of infants and educate them on having their newborns sleep on their backs. This was based on research in Hong Kong where babies slept face-up and SIDS was rare. Since the start of the campaign, the number of deaths attributed to SIDS has been cut in half in the United States.
The NICHD has also helped reduce the transmission of HIV from infected mothers to the fetus from happening 25 percent of the time to two percent.
Though infant mortality is still a major problem in the United States, there are organizations such as NICHD working to tackle the issue. The main ways to improve infant outcomes in the U.S. appear to be through education and improved resources for at-risk populations.