SIDS Deaths for Black Infants Spiked in 2020 & Researchers Aren’t Totally Sure Why

SIDS deaths for Black infants spiked “significantly” from 2019 to 2020, and the reason why isn’t totally clear.

A recent report published in the journal Pediatrics explored whether the increased rate of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome in 2020 had anything to do with the COVID-19 pandemic. Although the overall U.S. infant mortality reached a record low in 2020, SIDS deaths jumped by 15 percent year over year, according to CDC data.

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SIDS is characterized as the unexplained death of an otherwise healthy infant, often in their sleep. It is not used in cases where an infant is found to have accidentally suffocated. However, there is another term that encompasses both types of deaths: SUID, or Sudden Unexplained Infant Death.

For this study, researchers analyzed birth and death data from 2015–2020. The SIDS numbers they looked at weren’t broken down by race and ethnicity, but the SUID data were. And that’s where the study’s authors uncovered another alarming trend: In 2020, the rate of SUID for Black infants was “higher than any time during 2017 to 2019,” widening an already vast disparity. This increase wasn’t present among infants from any other racial or ethnic group.

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Speaking to NBC News, Sharyn Parks Brown, the study’s author and a senior epidemiologist for the CDC’s Perinatal and Infant Health Team, said this finding “was absolutely a surprise to us.”

Researchers aren’t totally sure why this spike occurred, either. It might be a statistical anomaly. Alternatively, it could be the result of updated guidelines for how SIDS is classified on death certificates.

In 2019, the National Association of Medical Examiners said finding a babies on or near bedding was not sufficient evidence to constitute death by accidental suffocation. That would now count as SIDS. “If the new guidance was followed, this could have led to increased reporting of SIDS,” researchers noted.

Regardless, this finding “deserves further attention because it could be attributable to the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on social determinants of health,” the team added. At this point, it is well-known that the pandemic disproportionately impacted communities of color. Various issues exacerbated by COVID-19 — including limited access to healthcare, parental financial or emotional stressors, and parental substance abuse — may have led to increases in “unsafe sleep practices (eg, bedsharing), thereby increasing the occurrence of SIDS and [SUID].”

Commentary published alongside the report underscored how this research reflects systemic issues affecting Black communities. For instance, Black Americans are significantly more likely to live in poverty or experience houselessness than white Americans. “Our societal failures to address these issues not only result in limited access to health care and education, but also in many families not having a stable, safe place for their infants to sleep,” the authors wrote.

These racial health gaps aren’t unique to SUID, either. One study from 2019 found that Black pre-term babies are more likely to die or experience serious health problems than their white counterparts. Another report published last October found racial disparities in infant mortality rates for babies conceived via IVF and born to Black mothers.

“By understanding how social determinants of health disproportionately affect infant health and the risks for SUID, healthcare providers can better support amelioration of those factors,” the authors added.

About 3,500 U.S. infants die of SIDS each year. To prevent this, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that very young children sleep on their backs until they turn 1. They should sleep alone on firm, non-inclined surfaces without soft pillows or stuffed animals, which may cause them to suffocate.

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