Be Healthy and Thrive in Forsyth County
Why Babies Die

Causes of Death

Any baby that is born alive and dies before its first birthday is considered an infant death. Even if the baby only takes a few breaths or only has a heartbeat for less than a minute, that baby was alive. Stillborn babies are called fetal deaths, not infant deaths. Though there are many different problems that can contribute to a baby dying, the actual causes of death are those listed below.

Causes of Death:

Born Too Soon and Too Small (premature births)

Premature birth is the leading cause of infant death in our community and in North Carolina as a whole.

  • Most pregnancies last about 40 weeks. Any baby born before 37 weeks is considered premature.
  • The babies at highest risk to die are the ones born very premature, before 32 weeks of pregnancy.
  • The overwhelming majority of our local babies that die are born more than three months premature. They are so small they can literally be held in the palm of your hand.
  • Premature babies are not just small, they are really not finished developing yet. They often have lungs that do not work on their own, brains that are not finished developing, and low resistance to illnesses.
  • Many premature babies do live but may have major health problems for life. Health challenges might include, for example: blindness, cerebral palsy, major problems eating or breathing, and developmental delays.
  • No one in the world knows exactly what causes premature birth. About half of all the premature births in the US have no known cause. Research continues around the globe.
  • While we wait for the answers, we can help prevent premature birth by helping all women be healthy before they become pregnant.

How to Prevent Premature Birth

Learn the signs of preterm labor. Women who start labor during their 5th or 6th month of pregnancy often are not even aware that they have started premature labor. Learn these signs so you can know when to call the doctor or go to the emergency room.

  • Contractions every 10 minutes or more often
  • Fluid (bloody or clear) leaking from your vagina – could be a trickle or a gush
  • Pelvic Pressure – the feeling that your body is pushing down
  • Low, dull backache
  • Cramps that feel like your period
  • Abdominal cramps – with or without diarrhea

For more information, visit the March of Dimes prematurity site.

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Birth Defects

  • In North Carolina, about 1 in every 30 babies is born with some kind of severe birth defect.
  • Birth defects are the second leading cause of infant death in NC and in the nation.
  • Most birth defects happen within the first three months of pregnancy, often in the first couple of weeks and before a woman even has missed a period.
  • Some of the most common birth defects are 1) problems with the heart or 2) neural tube defects like spina bifida.
  • A woman’s body can sometimes tell early in a pregnancy if her fetus has a very severe birth defect. These pregnancies often end early in a miscarriage.
  • We do not know with cause of about 60% of birth defects. The other 40% maybe prevented.

How to Prevent Birth Defects

  • All women and girls who can one day become pregnant should take a daily multi-vitamin that includes Folic Acid. This B vitamin can prevent up to 70% of birth defects to the brain or spine such as spina bifida. However, folic acid only works to prevent birth defects during the very early days of pregnancy. All women should take a daily multivitamin for at least two months before they become pregnant. Start the vitamin habit today – it’s never too early to take care of your health.
  • If you become pregnant, stop drinking alcohol. Drinking alcohol while pregnant can cause Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. This can cause brain disorders, mental retardation, stunted growth, and other birth defects.
  • When you are pregnant or trying to become pregnant, be wary of hazardous chemicals in household products, fumes, and even fertilizers. Carefully read product labels and ask your health care provider about any substances you are unsure of.
  • If birth defects run in your family, consider seeing a genetic counselor before you try to have a baby. Knowing your risks can help you prepare for the possibility of life with a special needs child or may lead you to consider adoption.

For more information on a variety of birth defects, go to the March of Dimes Information Center.

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SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome)

What is SIDS?

  • SIDS stands for Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. It is the sudden and unexplained death of a baby under 1 year of age.
  • Because many SIDS babies are found in their cribs, some people call SIDS "crib death."

What causes SIDS?

Groundbreaking new research sheds light on SIDS (October 2006)

SIDS may not be a "mystery" disease after all, but it has a specific biological cause.

  • New research shows that many babies who have died from SIDS had a disorder in how their bodies responded to the brain chemical serotonin.
  • In an infant brain with a serotonin problem, the brain cells that tell the body “turn over because I’m not getting enough oxygen” or “wake up because I’m overheating” simply might not be getting through.
  • Safe sleeping for infants can help reduce the risk of SIDS. Remember to always put healthy babies on their backs to sleep; keep cribs free of toys, pillows, and comforters; and avoid overheating the baby or the room baby sleeps in.

Is SIDS a problem?

  • Babies placed to sleep on their stomachs are much more likely to die of SIDS than babies placed on their backs to sleep.
  • African American babies are 2 times more likely to die of SIDS than white babies.
  • SIDS is the leading cause of death in babies in the United States after 1 month of age.
  • Most SIDS deaths happen in babies who are between 2 and 4 months old.
  • More SIDS deaths happen in colder months.

How to Reduce the Risk of SIDS

When you put a baby down to sleep:

  • Always put the baby on his or her back to sleep, even for naps.
  • Note: Healthy babies should not choke if they spit up while they are sleeping on their backs. Babies automatically turn their heads or cough up fluids. Doctors have found no increase in choking or other problems in babies sleeping on their backs.
  • Put the baby on a firm mattress in a crib. Soft mattresses, sofas, sofa cushions, waterbeds, sheepskins, or other soft surfaces can increase the risk of SIDS
  • Keep all soft, fluffy and loose bedding, stuffed toys, pillows and other soft items out of the baby’s crib.
  • Make sure your baby’s face and head stay uncovered during sleep.
  • Keep blankets and other coverings away from your baby’s mouth and nose.
  • If you put the baby in sleep clothes, do not use a blanket at all.
  • If you do use a blanket or another covering, make sure that the baby’s feet are at the bottom of the crib, the blanket is no higher than the baby’s chest, and the blanket is tucked in around the bottom of the crib mattress and around both sides up to the baby's chest-level.
  • Don’t let your baby get too warm during sleep. The baby’s room should be at a temperature that is comfortable for an adult (around 70 degrees). Too many layers of clothing or blankets can overheat your baby.
  • Make sure everyone who cares for your baby knows to place your baby on his or her back to sleep. Talk to childcare providers, grandparents, babysitters and all caregivers about SIDS risks.

Other things you can do to take care of the baby and reduce the risk of SIDS

  • Don’t smoke and don’t let anyone else smoke around the baby. Don't keep the baby in the same house or car with someone who is smoking.
  • Breast-feed babies whenever possible. Breast milk can help prevent infections that make it hard for the baby to breathe. Breast-fed babies have a lower SIDS rate than formula-fed babies do.

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All Other Causes

Premature birth, birth defects, and SIDS are the leading causes of death for infants in the United States. Other causes include:

  • Respiratory Distress Syndrome – Babies with this syndrome are often born so early that their lungs don’t work properly yet.
  • Complications of the pregnancy or the birth – A number of babies die from umbilical cord complications or are born much too early because of complications the mother may experience during her pregnancy. Starting prenatal care early allows health care providers to monitor pregnant women throughout their pregnancies and hopefully prevent many complications.
  • Abuse and Neglect - Some infants are intentionally or unintentionally killed each year by their parents or care providers. Parents might roll over on a baby while sleeping, might shake a baby and cause life-threatening brain damage, or might simply neglect the child, failing to provide for its basic needs.

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Contact Information

The Forsyth County Infant Mortality Reduction Coalition is a community partnership housed within the Forsyth County Department of Public Health.

(336) 703-3260

Did You Know . . .

We spend more than $35 million per year on our very sick and very premature babies in this community.