The 10 Leading Causes of Infant Death

The leading causes of infant death in the United States have been relatively stable in recent years.

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, and there are significant disparities that involve many factors, including access to care and demographics.

Of the leading causes of infant death in this country, the top 10 account for approximately two-thirds 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, such as Down syndrome, spina bifida, or congenital heart defects, may require lifelong care. And some congenital defects are so severe that a child is unable to survive.

In 2019, 4,301 infants died of a congenital defect, accounting for 20.6% 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, particularly increasing the risk of respiratory distress or intraventricular hemorrhage, which is bleeding in and around the ventricles or the fluid-filled spaces of the brain.

In 2019, 3,445 infants died as a result of preterm birth or low birth weight, accounting for 16.5% of all infant mortalities.


Infant Accidents

A sign pointing to the emergency room.
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According to statistics from the CDC, the most common causes of injury in infants are accidental suffocation and drowning.

Suffocation primarily affects babies under one year of age and accounts for two-thirds of all infant injury deaths. When compared to all other age groups, infants are at a 16-fold greater risk of accidental suffocation.

Drowning typically involves children between the ages of one and four.

In 2019, 1,226 infants died of unintentionally inflicted injuries, accounting for 6.1% of all infant deaths.


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, it has been considered to be associated with defects in the portion of a baby's brain that regulates breathing and arousal from sleep.

In 2019, 1,248 infants died as a result of SIDS, or 6.0% of all infant deaths.


Pregnancy Complications

Woman giving birth
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Maternal pregnancy complications can affect the baby's health, with varying degrees of severity.

These may include:

  • Preeclampsia: Potentially life-threatening high blood pressure
  • Placenta previa: Occurring when the placenta is situated low in the uterus
  • Incompetent cervix: When a weak cervix increases the risk of preterm birth

In 2019, 1,245 infants, or 6.0% of all infant deaths, died as a direct result of maternal complications.


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 and taking away waste products, such as carbon dioxide.

Sometimes, complications affecting the placenta or umbilical cord can cause infant death.

Complications that affect the placenta and may lead to infant death include:

  • Placental infarction: Areas of dead tissue that deprive the fetus of blood
  • Placental insufficiency: The placenta doesn't grow in a way that supports fetal development

Cord prolapse is a condition in which the umbilical cord drops out of the cervix and wraps around the baby. Nuchal cord occurs when the umbilical cord wraps around the baby's neck.

Placenta and umbilical cord complications accounted for 742 infant deaths in 2019, or 3.5% of all fatalities.


Other Causes

The remaining most common causes of infant death, according to the CDC, each account for fewer than 3% of the reported mortalities.

  • Bacterial sepsis (603 deaths, 2.9% of total)
  • Respiratory distress (424 deaths, 2.0%)
  • Diseases of the circulatory system (406 deaths, 1.9%)
  • Necrotizing enterocolitis of the newborn (354 deaths, 1.7%)

Often, early and comprehensive prenatal care can help reduce the risk of infant death, and improve the overall long-term health of the mother and baby.

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.

  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. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. National Vital Statistics Reports.

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

Additional Reading

By Angela Morrow, RN
Angela Morrow, RN, BSN, CHPN, is a certified hospice and palliative care nurse.