Often, there are no definite ways to prevent many of the leading causes of infant mortality. However, there are ways to reduce a baby’s risk. Researchers continue to study the best ways to prevent and treat the causes of infant mortality and affect the contributors to infant mortality. Consider the following ways to help reduce the risk:
Preventing Birth Defects
Birth defects are currently the leading cause of infant mortality in the United States.1 There are many different kinds of birth defects, and they can happen in any pregnancy.
There are several things pregnant women can do to help reduce the risk of certain birth defects, such as getting enough folic acid before and during pregnancy to prevent neural tube defects. Learn more about some risk factors for birth defects.
Addressing Preterm Birth, Low Birth Weight, and Their Outcomes
There is currently no definitive way to prevent preterm birth, the second most-common cause of infant mortality in the United States.1 However, researchers and health care providers are working to address the issue on multiple fronts, including finding ways to stop preterm labor from progressing to a preterm delivery and identifying ways to improve health outcomes for infants who are born preterm. Preterm infants commonly have a low birth weight, but sometimes full-term infants are also born underweight. Causes can include a mother’s chronic health condition or poor nutrition. Adequate prenatal care is essential to ensuring that full-term infants are born at a healthy weight.2,3
There are some known risk factors for preterm birth—including having had a preterm birth with a previous pregnancy—and women with known risk factors may receive treatments to help reduce those risks. But in most cases, the cause for preterm birth is not known, so there are not always effective treatments or actions that can prevent a preterm delivery.
Researchers and health care providers are also working to understand the health challenges faced by infants born preterm or at a low birth weight as a way to develop treatments for these challenges. For instance, preterm infants are at high risk for serious breathing problems as a result of their underdeveloped lungs. Treatments such as ventilators and steroids can help stabilize breathing to allow the lungs to develop more fully. In addition, studies suggest that infants born at low birth weight are at increased risk of certain adult health problems, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease.4
Getting Preconception and Prenatal Care
During pregnancy, the mother’s health, environment, and experiences affect how her fetus develops and the course of the pregnancy. By taking good care of her own health before and during pregnancy, a mother can reduce her baby’s risk of many of the leading causes of infant mortality in the United States, including birth defects, preterm birth, low birth weight, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), and certain pregnancy complications.5,6,7
Women don’t need to wait until they are pregnant to take steps to improve their health. Reaching a healthy weight, getting proper nutrition, managing chronic health conditions, and seeking help for substance use and abuse, for example, can help a woman achieve better health before she is pregnant. Her improved health, in turn, can help to reduce infant mortality risks for any babies she has in the future. Learn more about preconception care.
Once she becomes pregnant, a mother should receive early and regular prenatal care. This type of care helps promote the best outcomes for mother and baby. Learn more about prenatal care.
Creating a Safe Infant Sleep Environment
SIDS is defined as the sudden, unexplained death of an infant younger than 1 year of age that remains unexplained even after a thorough investigation. SIDS is the third-leading cause of infant mortality in the United States.
SIDS is one type of death within a broader category of causes of death called sudden unexpected infant death (SUID). The SUID category includes other sleep-related causes of infant death—such as accidental suffocation—as well as infections, vehicle collisions, and other causes.8
As SIDS rates have been declining in the last few decades, rates of other sleep-related causes of infant death have been increasing. Accidental injury is the fifth-leading cause of infant mortality in the United States.
Although there is no definite way to prevent SIDS, there are ways to reduce the risk of SIDS and other sleep-related causes of infant death. For example, always placing a baby on his or her back to sleep and keeping baby’s sleep area free of soft objects, toys, crib bumpers, and loose bedding are important ways to reduce a baby’s risk.8 The NICHD-led Safe to Sleep® campaign (formerly the Back to Sleep campaign) describes many ways that parents and caregivers can reduce the risk of SIDS and other sleep-related causes of infant death.
Using Newborn Screening to Detect Hidden Conditions
Newborn screening can detect certain conditions that are not noticeable at the time of birth, but that can cause serious disability or even death if not treated quickly. Infants with these conditions may seem perfectly healthy and frequently come from families with no previous history of a condition.
To perform this screening, health care providers take a few drops of blood from an infant’s heel and apply them to special paper. The blood spots are then analyzed. If any conditions are detected, treatment can begin immediately.
Most states screen for at least 29 conditions, but some test for 50 or more conditions. Infants who are at increased or high risk for a condition because of their family history can undergo additional screening—beyond what states offer automatically—through a health care specialist.
Since this public health program was initiated 50 years ago, it has saved countless lives by providing early detection and intervention and by improving the quality of life for children and their families.
- Hoyert, D. L., & Xu, J. (2012). Deaths: preliminary data for 2011. National Vital Statistics Reports, 61(6). Retrieved July 23, 2013, from http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr61/nvsr61_06.pdf (PDF - 891 KB) [top]
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2011). Pediatric and Pregnancy Nutrition Surveillance System Health Indicators. Retrieved October 13, 2014, from http://www.cdc.gov/pednss/what_is/pnss_health_indicators.htm#Infant%20Health%20Indicators [top]
- Peleg, D., Kennedy, Colleen, M., & Hunter, S.K. (1998). Intrauterine growth restriction: Identification and management. American Family Physician, 58(2), 453–460. [top]
- Hovi, P., Andersson, S., Eriksson, J. G., Järvenpää, A. L., Strang-Karlsson, S., Mäkitie, O., et al. (2007). Glucose regulation in young adults with very low birth weight. New England Journal of Medicine, 356, 2053–2063. [top]
- CDC. (2012). Infant mortality. Retrieved July 23, 2013, from http://www.cdc.gov/reproductivehealth/MaternalInfantHealth/InfantMortality.htm [top]
- Steward, A.J. et al. (1995). Antenatal and intrapartum factors associated with SIDS in New Zealand Cot Study. Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health. 31(5), 473-478. [top]
- Iyasu et al. (2002) Risk factors for SIDS among Northern Plains Indians. Journal of the American Medical Association, 288, 2717-2723. [top]
- American Academy of Pediatrics Task Force on Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. (2011). SIDS and other sleep-related infant deaths: Expansion of recommendations for a safe infant sleeping environment. Pediatrics, 128, 1030-1039. [top]