The 10 Leading Causes of Infant Death

The leading causes of infant death in the United States haven't changed in recent years despite advances in science and an increased focus on prenatal care. More troubling yet is the fact that the United States outpaces all other major developed countries with respect to infant mortality, according to research from the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Although the death rate in the United States fell from 6.2 per 1,000 births in 2010 to 5.7 per 1,000 births in 2017, that number is well in excess of Canada (4.8 per 1,000 births), the United Kingdom (3.9 per 1,000 births), Australia (3.4 per 1,000 births), and Japan (2.1 per 1,000 births).

Of the leading causes of infant death in this country, the top 10 account for 67.5 percent of all fatalities, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).


Congenital Defects

Female doctor examining newborn baby in incubator

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Congenital defects, also known as birth defects, occur while a fetus is still in the womb. Congenital defects can affect the way the body looks or functions and can range in severity from mild to life-threatening. Some defects, such as cleft palate, can be easily fixed with surgery. Others may need life-long treatment or managed care (such as Down syndrome, spina bifida, or congenital heart defects).

In 2016, 4,816 infants died of a congenital defect, accounting for 20.8 percent of all infant mortalities.


Preterm Birth and Low Birth Weight

Premature Baby in Incubator NICU Equipment with NICU Nurse
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Preterm birth, also known as a premature birth, is a birth that occurs before the 37th week of pregnancy. Low birth weight is defined as a birth weight of less than 2,500 grams (5 pounds, 8 ounces) regardless of the length of gestation.

Premature babies often have trouble fighting infection because their immune systems aren't yet fully formed. This can lead to an increased risk of pneumonia, sepsis (a blood infection), and meningitis (infection of the membrane around the brain and spinal cord). Low birth weight can increase the risk of death due to immature organ development, resulting in respiratory distress or intraventricular hemorrhage, which is bleeding in and around the ventricles or the fluid filled spaces of the brain .

In 2016, 3,927 infants died as a result of preterm birth or low birth weight, accounting for 17 percent of all infant mortalities.


Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS)

Baby sleeping in crib
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Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), also referred to a crib death, is the unexplained, sudden death of a seemingly healthy baby under the age of one. Although the cause of SIDS is unknown, many believe that it is associated with defects in the portion of a baby's brain that regulates breathing and arousal from sleep.

In 2016, 1,500 infants died as a result of SIDS, or 6.5 percent of all infant deaths.


Pregnancy Complications

Woman giving birth
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Maternal pregnancy complications are problems that occur with the mother during gestation. These may include preeclampsia (potentially life-threatening high blood pressure), placenta previa (occurring when the placenta is situated low in the uterus), and incompetent cervix (when a weak cervix increases the risk of preterm birth), and a host of other conditions.

In 2016, 1,402 infants, or 6.1 percent of all infant deaths, died as a direct result of maternal complications.


Infant Accidents

A sign pointing to the emergency room.
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According to statistics from the CDC, the primary causes of injury in infants are accidental suffocation and drowning.Suffocation primarily affects babies under one and accounts for two-thirds of all infant injury deaths. Drowning typically involves children between the ages of one and four. When compared to all other age groups, infants are at 16-fold greater risk of accidental suffocation.

In 2016, 1,219 infants died of unintentionally inflicted injuries, accounting for 5.3 percent of all infant deaths.


Placenta and Umbilical Cord Complications

Mother Looking At Newborn Crying While Doctors Cutting Umbilical Cord

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The placenta is an organ in the uterus that supplies the fetus with blood and nutrients needed for survival. The umbilical cord connects the mother to the fetus at the placenta, delivering oxygen and nutrients while simultaneously taking away waste products such as carbon dioxide.

Two complications associated with infant death are placental infarction (areas of dead tissue that deprive the fetus of blood) and placental insufficiency (in which the placenta fails to grow in a way that supports fetal development).

With respect to the umbilical cord, common causes of death include prolapse (in which the cord drops out of the cervix and wraps around the baby), nuchal cord (in which the cord wraps around the baby's neck), and umbilical cord knots.

Placenta and umbilical cord complications accounted for 841 infant deaths in 2016, or 3.6 percent of all fatalities.


Other Causes

The remaining four causes of infant death, according to the CDC, each account for fewer than 3 percent of the reported mortalities. As outlined in the National Vital Statistics Reports for 2016, the causes are (in descending order):

  • Bacterial sepsis (583 deaths, 2.5 percent of total)
  • Respiratory distress (488 deaths, 2.1 percent)
  • Diseases of the circulatory system (460 deaths, 2 percent)
  • Neonatal hemorrhage (398 deaths, 1.7 percent)

There were also 7,527 deaths classified by the CDC as "all other causes." In total, these infant deaths accounted for 32.5 percent of all reported mortalities.

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5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Almli LM, Ely DM, Ailes EC, et al. Infant mortality attributable to birth defects - United States, 2003-2017. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2020;69(2):25-29. doi:10.15585/mmwr.mm6902a1

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Infant mortality. Updated March 27, 2019

  3. Xu, J., Murphy, S., Kochanek, K., Bastian, B. and Arias, E. Deaths: final data for 2016. National Vital Statistics Reports. 2018 July;67(5).

  4. Xu J, Murphy SL, et. al. Deaths: final data for 2016. National Vital Statistics Reports. 2018;67(5):1-76.

  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. CDC childhood injury report. 2008

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