Sudden unexpected infant deaths spiked among Black babies in 2020, CDC finds

newborn baby nursery
(Image credit: Oscar Wong/Getty Images)

A new study shows that the rate of sudden and unexpected infant deaths spiked in the first year of the pandemic, especially amongst black infants, "even as overall infant mortality dropped to a record low," CNN reports.

The findings were part of research published Monday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The study found 3,300 sudden infant deaths among babies of all races in 2020, a 15 percent increase from the previous year. Around one out of every six cases was classified as sudden unexpected infant deaths (SUID), "a broad classification of deaths that includes sudden infant death syndrome, known as SIDS, along with accidental suffocation and strangulation in bed and other unknown causes," CNN explains. While the SUID rate for white babies was at its lowest since 2017, "the rate for Black babies in 2020 was the highest it has been since then."

The researchers believe that the rising SUID rates in 2020 were "likely attributable to diagnostic shifting — or reclassifying the cause of death," The Washington Post writes. While the causes of the spike in "sleep-related deaths" of Black babies remain unclear, the jump coincided with the beginning of the COVID pandemic, which, the Post says, "disproportionately affected the health and wealth of Black communities." The researchers pointed out that the "pandemic exacerbated overcrowded housing, food insecurity, and other stressors, particularly among Black families — potentially leading to less safe sleeping practices, such as bed-sharing."

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Sharyn Parks, one of the study's co-authors and an epidemiologist at the CDC's Division of Reproductive Health, said there are two key takeaways from the study — the need for scientists to examine factors like economic disparities, "as well as the need for parents to remember the practical steps they can take," per the Post.

"We want to continue emphasizing safe infant sleep practices, putting babies on their backs and removing all soft bedding," Parks said.

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