Racial disparity in infant sleep-related deaths

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A study conducted by Children's Memorial Research Center reveals that African American infants are far more likely to die from sleep-related causes than any other ethnic group in Illinois.

This statistic is most dramatic in Cook County where infants are 12 times more likely to die from sleep-related causes. The difference between the sleep-related death rate for African Americans and other ethnic groups is smaller in Illinois outside of Cook County, though African American infants are still twice as likely to die from sleep-related causes.

Researchers at Child Health Data Lab which is part of the Mary Ann & J. Milburn Smith Child Health Research Program collected information on infant deaths in Illinois due to sudden infant death syndrome, unintentional suffocation in bed and undetermined causes. Although the actual cause of death cannot be pinpointed in many of these cases, research shows that most of these deaths occur when an infant is in an unsafe sleep situation.

“African American infant mortality is much higher than Caucasian infant mortality across the United States,” says Jenifer Cartland, PhD, director of the research center’s Child Health Data Lab. “In Cook County, sleep-related death is responsible for 20 percent of the African American infant mortality, but it might be prevented by assuring that all infants have a safe place to sleep and that parents are well educated about safe sleep practices.”

Karen Sheehan, MD, MPH at Children’s Memorial says, “The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children should be put to sleep on their backs, in a safety-approved crib (or bassinet for younger children) with a firm mattress, and free from any objects (even blankets or toys) that could cover the baby’s face.”

Parents don’t always have all the knowledge or all the resources they need to put their infant to bed safely. Based on the research, 56.7 percent of the deaths occurred while the infant was sharing a bed with an adult and 30 percent occurred when the baby was sleeping alone, but not in a crib or bassinet (such as on a couch or a pillow on the floor). Few of these infants — only 7.5 percent – were found in safe sleep circumstances, that is, in a crib or bassinet with the baby on his or her back.

The alarming difference among ethnic groups raises the question of what should be done. “Many organizations are now coming together to increase safe sleep awareness,” says Cartland. “We need to get babies alone in their cribs and secure more funding for intervention programs, such as making sure all parents have access to safety-approved, low cost cribs and bassinets and increasing parents’ knowledge about safe sleep.”

Children's Memorial’s Child Health Data Lab performs epidemiological research to identify risks to the health of children and adolescents with the goal to improve health and well-being of children and adolescents in Chicago and Illinois. For more information about the research or to learn about sleep related infant death prevention visit American Academy of Pediatrics, SIDS Illinois, or Children's Memorial Hospital’s Child Health Data Lab.

The Understanding Sleep Related Death study is based off the Illinois Death Reporting System, and was conducted by Children’s Memorial Hospital Child Health Data Lab by Jenifer Cartland, PhD in collaboration with data-providing agencies including Cook County Medical Examiner, the Kane and Peoria County Coroners, the Illinois Department of Public Health and the Chicago Policy Department.


The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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