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Sudden Death of an Infant: How Have Trends Changed?

March 15, 2023

Family Connections with Pediatrics Blog

The loss of a baby is awful for parents, families, and their care team. Over the years, safe sleep guidelines have led to fewer infant deaths in the US. A recent study, “Sudden Unexpected Infant Deaths: 2015–2020,” by Shapiro-Mendoza et al, published this month in Pediatrics (10.1542/peds.2022-058820), shares the overall rates of sudden unexpected infant deaths over the past few years and what has changed. To understand this data, we first must discuss the language used in the article.

SIDS? SUIDS? What do they mean?

  • Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) is the death of a baby less than 1-year-old, usually during sleep, for an unknown reason.
  • Sudden unexpected infant death (SUID) is the death of a baby under 1 year of age for an unknown reason that happens during sleep or in the area where they sleep. SUID includes SIDS, as well as accidental suffocation or strangulation in bed or bed area by blankets, for example.

What does the data say?

The authors looked at data from 2015-2020 to see if there were changes in rates of SIDS and SUID. The data revealed that the SUID rates stayed the same between 2015-2020 for all except non-Hispanic Black babies. In 2019-2020 the SUID rate was over 2 times higher for Black babies than for all other babies.

Why is there an increase?

Authors of this article, as well as authors of an accompanying commentary by Carlin et al titled, “Increasing Disparities in Sudden Unexpected Infant Deaths Reflect Societal Failures,” talk about some things that could affect SUID rates (10.1542/peds.2022-060798), such as:

  • changes in how SIDS and SUID are diagnosed
  • a lack of standard ways to investigate and confirm cause of death in babies

They also point out that changes in services during the COVID-19 pandemic could have led to the increased SUID rate from 2019-2020 in non-Hispanic Black babies. For example, lack of access to the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), doctors’ offices, home visiting programs, and mental health care services during the COVID-19 pandemic could have led to less support for non-Hispanic Black families in the first year of their baby’s life.

The Carlin et al article goes further and calls out “societal failures” to truly deal with larger issues like poverty, homelessness, family leave, and access to education and healthcare as root causes that must be addressed to reverse this trend.

What can you do with this article?

  1. If you or someone you know is pregnant and wants to learn more about safe sleep practices, talk to your child’s doctor. Healthy Children is also a great source for this information.
  2. Sound the alarm for making sure families practice safe sleep habits for their babies. Share this article widely in community groups, and at local libraries, schools, churches, grocery stores, and work.
  3. If you engage in advocacy and policy for children’s health, notice all the programs that Carlin et al link to as key supports for safe sleep practices. Bring this data into your work and call for a better start to life for every single baby!
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