The decline follows a five-year period (2000 to 2005) when the U.S. infant mortality rate had stubbornly plateaued.
The CDC finding is encouraging news — and not just for infants and their parents. As the report points out, infant mortality is considered an important indicator of the overall health of a nation.
The news also suggests that recent programs to make pregnancy and delivery safer for women and their babies — by discouraging early elective deliveries, for example — may be having an effect.
Still, we have a long way to go to improve the health of our infants. As a report published earlier this year by the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council noted, the U.S. has the highest infant mortality rate among the world’s high-income countries.
Across many demographics
The CDC’s new data revealed that 6.05 in 1,000 babies in the U.S. died in 2011 before they had reached their first birthday, compared to 6.87 per 1,000 in 2005. The decline was seen in all major racial and ethnic groups, but was greatest (16 percent) among babies born to non-Hispanic black women. The decline was 12 percent for babies born to non-Hispanic white women and 9 percent for those born to Hispanic women.
Historically, the report points out, black infants in the U.S. have died at more than twice the rate of white infants. The large 2005-2011 drop in the rate of deaths among black infants closes that gap, but only a little.
Regionally, the biggest fall in infant mortality occurred in the South. Some southern states, such as Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina and South Carolina, saw declines of 20 percent or more between 2005 and 2010. Yet despite those declines, infant mortality rates in the South are still higher than in most of the rest of the country. (Not all states had gathered their data for 2011, so CDC statisticians used data only for the years 2005-2010 when making their geographic analysis.)
Minnesota outscores its neighbors
In Minnesota, the infant mortality rate dropped 12 percent, from 5.10 per 1,000 babies in 2005 to 4.49 in 2010. That gave the state the sixth-lowest rate in the country, behind Alaska (3.75/1,000), New Hampshire (3.96/1,000), Vermont (4.18/1,000), Massachusetts (4.43/1,000) and Washington (4.50/1,000).
Minnesota outscored all four of its immediate neighbors: South Dakota (6.94/1,000), North Dakota (6.81/1,000), Wisconsin (5.84/1,000) and Iowa (4.88/1,000).
Several reasons for the decline
The 2005-2011 drop in the U.S. infant mortality rate corresponds with declines during that same period in four of the five leading causes of infant deaths: birth defects (down 6 percent); maternal complications (down 7 percent); premature birth/low birthweight (down 9 percent), and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) (down 20 percent).
The large SIDS-rate decline may be because more parents are following prevention advice and putting their infants to sleep on their backs, or, as the CDC researchers note, because of changes in the way SIDS is diagnosed and reported.
The only leading cause of infant death that did not decline between 2005 and 2011 was unintentional injuries. Deaths in that category actually rose slightly.
A stunning drop in elective deliveries
Increasing public and physician awareness of the possible dangers of early elective deliveries is one area that many health officials have been focusing on lately — and with some promising success. In fact, earlier this month, researchers reported on the results of an innovative program, partly funded by the March of Dimes, that used a specially developed “toolkit” to discourage physicians and women from instigating early inductions or C-sections for otherwise healthy pregnancies.
Within a single year, the program cut the rate of early elective deliveries from 27.8 percent to 4.8 percent in the 25 participating hospitals — a stunning decline of 83 percent. The drop in elective deliveries had no effect on medically indicated early-term deliveries and C-sections. Nor did it increase infant deaths.
The researchers are hoping to expand the program to more hospitals across the country.