Unexplained Black Infant Deaths Increased in One Year, Study Finds
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From 2019 to 2020, there was a sudden, unexpected increase in unexplained Black infant deaths.

It could be attributable to the COVID-19 pandemic

Sudden Infant Deaths, 2015-2020

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found this troubling increase happened during the first year of the Coronavirus pandemic, where Black families were also disproportionately affected.

The rate of SUID, which stands for Sudden Unexplained Infant Death, per 100,000 live births in Black babies was among the highest in 2020. It went from 189 in 2019 to 214 in 2020.

The cause for the sharp increase is not known, but researchers said it “deserves further attention because it could be attributable to the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on social determinants of health. Evidence does not support direct or indirect effects of the coronavirus disease 2019 pandemic on increased rates of sudden unexpected infant death, except for non-Hispanic Black infants.”

The study, which was published in American Academy of Pediatrics on March 13, examined SUID and SIDS at the height of the pandemic. SIDS is the common name for Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, a case in which death doesn’t have a definitive cause. However accidental strangulation or suffocation would fall under SUID.

While there had previously been an overall decline in SIDS, it rose 15% from 2019 to 2020. The rate increased from 33.3 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2019 to 38.2 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2020.

Researchers found “diagnostic shifting” was likely the cause of the higher SIDS rate.

Race and ethnicity were not factors in the SIDS research but it was in the SUID portion. Researchers found overall SUID rate was steady except among Black infants.

The finding “was absolutely a surprise to us,” said the study’s author, Sharyn Parks Brown, senior epidemiologist for the CDC’s Perinatal and Infant Health Team. The racial and ethnic breakdowns of such deaths had been consistent for decades, she said.

“Why the SUID rate increased for non-Hispanic Black infants is unknown, but warrants continued monitoring,” read the study. “Interventions are needed to address persistent racial and ethnic disparities in SUID.”

Safe Sleep Practices from the AAP

  • Breastfeeding, when possible, has been shown to reduce the risk for sudden infant death. The AAP also cited the evidence that pacifiers given during naps and at bedtime may be beneficial.
  • Weighted blankets and sleepers should not be used on or near sleeping babies.
  • Make sure cribs have not been recalled for safety hazards.
  • Help babies strengthen the muscles they will someday use to turn over and away from potential dangers with supervised “tummy time.” The AAP says this practice may begin soon after babies come home from the hospital.