Despite a record infant mortality rate in 2020, a new study finds an unexpected rise in unexplained deaths in black babies during the first year of the coronavirus pandemic.

The rate of SIDS, or sudden infant death syndrome, rose 15 percent in a single year, from 33.3 deaths per 100,000 babies born in 2019 to 38.2 such deaths in 2020, according to research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released Monday. in the medical journal Pediatrics.

SIDS is a well-known term and is used in cases where the cause of death cannot be definitively explained. It is not used when a child is found to have accidentally suffocated on a pillow cushion, for example.

In data collection, both SIDS and accidental suffocation or strangulation incidents fall under the umbrella term SUID, or sudden unexplained infant death.

The SIDS data is not broken down by race and ethnicity, but the SUID numbers are. That’s where the researchers found the rise in unexplained deaths in black babies, but not in any other racial or ethnic group.

The finding «was absolutely a surprise to us,» said study author Sharyn Parks Brown, a senior epidemiologist with CDC’s Perinatal and Child Health Team. The racial and ethnic breakdowns of such deaths have been consistent for decades, she said.

The reasons for the jump are unknown. It could be a statistical anomaly, an unexplained irregularity in the data, that would need to be monitored for several more years to see if the increase is sustained.

It could also reflect adjustments the National Association of Medical Examiners made in 2019 about what sudden infant deaths look like. listed on death certificates.

The guidance said that finding babies on or near soft bedding was not enough to qualify such deaths as accidental suffocation without evidence that the children’s airways had, in fact, become blocked. Those cases, according to the recommendations, should be classified as SIDS.

«If the new guidelines were followed, this could have led to an increase in SIDS reports,» the study authors wrote.

Whatever the reason, complex racial disparities clearly persist. Blacks were disproportionately affected by the pandemic, both from the disease and from the economic stress that accompanied the pandemic.

According to an editorial published along with the study, blacks are more than twice as likely as whites to live in poverty.

«And among families with children, homelessness is 50% more likely among those who identify as non-Hispanic black,» the authors wrote.

A co-author of the editorial, Dr. Rebecca Carlin, a pediatrician affiliated with Columbia University in New York, said: «If you don’t have a safe place for your baby to sleep, how are you going to get them to sleep safely?»

Additionally, black communities have higher rates of smoking and premature birth. Both are risk factors for sudden infant death.

Safe Sleep Practices

Parks Brown and her team published a study in 2021 that found unsafe bedding to be a leading cause of unexpected deaths in babies 4 months and younger.

For this age group, soft items such as blankets, pillows, crib bumpers and stuffed animals should not be placed in cribs when infants are sleeping or otherwise left unattended, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Children this age do not have the strength or motor skills to move away from choking hazards.

He AAP Guidelines They say that very young babies should sleep on their backs until their first birthday. They should sleep alone in their beds on firm, flat surfaces with only fitted sheets. Sofas and armchairs put babies at an extremely high risk of suffocation, as they could become trapped between seat cushions or under sleeping adults.

Experts also advise keeping baby cribs in caregivers’ rooms for at least six months.

Other ways to reduce the risk of sudden infant death, from the AAP:

  • Breast-feeding, when possible, has been shown to reduce the risk of sudden infant death. The AAP also cited evidence that pacifiers administered during naps and at bedtime may be beneficial.
  • Heavy blankets and nightgowns should not be used on or near sleeping babies.
  • Make sure that babies’ cribs have not been remembered for security risks.
  • Help babies build the muscles they will one day use to roll over and move away from potential danger with supervised «tummy time.» This practice can begin, says the AAP, soon after babies are allowed to go home from the hospital.

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