Rise in Infant Mortality Rates for Third Year in a Row

Data recently published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) shows that, for the third consecutive year, infant mortality rates in England and Wales have risen, with families in the poorest communities worst affected.

Infant mortality is when a child dies before reaching their first birthday. The ONS reports that in 2017 there were 2,636 infant deaths in England and Wales which is, in fact, a decrease from 2,651 deaths in 2016. There were, however, fewer live births in England and Wales in 2017, meaning that the proportion of newborns surviving to age one has fallen. Between 2016 and 2017 the infant mortality rate increased from 3.8 deaths per 1,000 live births to 3.9 per 1,000. Since the rates hit a record low of 3.6 per 1,000 in 2014, this increase to 3.9 represents a statistically significant increase.

Vasita Patel, from the ONS Vital Statistics Outputs Branch, stated that, “The infant mortality rate had been reducing since the 1980s, but since an all-time low in 2014 the rate has increased every year between 2014 to 2017. These changes are small and subject to random fluctuations, but when compared directly the rate in 2017 is significantly higher than 2014. However further monitoring over the next few years is needed to confirm a change in the trend.”

Infant mortality can be divided into neonatal mortality (deaths before 28 days) and post-neonatal mortality (deaths from 28 days but under 1 year). A report on behalf of the Royal College of Paediatricians and Child Heath, the National Children’s Bureau and the British Association for Child and Adolescent Public Health showed that the majority of infant deaths occur in the neonatal period. In 2014 the rate of neonatal mortality in England also reached an all-time low of 2.5 deaths per 1,000 live births, but since then the rate has increased to 2.8 per 1,000 in 2017.

Comparison of mortality rates between different socio-economic backgrounds

In 2017 the infant mortality rate was 5.2 deaths per 1,000 live births in the most deprived areas in England compared with 2.7 per 1,000 in the least deprived. However, the ONS figures show that the rate has decreased by 23.5% in the most deprived areas in England over the last 10 years, which is statistically significant.

The rates were highest among families working in routine or manual jobs compared to those working in higher managerial, administrative and professional occupations, although both groups have seen mortality rates rise since 2014.

Causes of infant mortality

Low birthweight is one of the main risk factors for infant mortality. Low birthweight describes a baby born weighing less than 2,500 grams (roughly 5.5 lb) and the ONS figures found that the infant mortality rate among low birthweight babies in 2017 has increased by 5.8% since 2016 to 34.7 deaths per 1,000 live births.

Rates of low birthweight are higher in less advantaged socio-economic groups. This can be attributed to a number of factors including poor prenatal care, poor nutrition during pregnancy, substance abuse, and smoking, which are all more common in these societal groups.

In April 2019 The Guardian reported that independent MP Frank Field had called on the government to investigate the rising infant mortality rates among the poorest groups in society, as he was concerned that rising infant mortality could be linked to increasing poverty caused by austerity and changes to benefits.

Understanding why children die, and taking action to prevent these deaths, is of the utmost importance. With all that is going on in politics at the moment, we hope that healthcare services and funding do not suffer as a result because, with an already stretched NHS, this could have a detrimental effect on the already increasing infant mortality rates.

At Lanyon Bowdler we understand how difficult it is to come to terms with the loss of a child, particularly when there are questions about the standard of care they received. As a department we have specialist expertise dealing with cases involving infant deaths and we have covered many cases arising from the Shrewsbury and Telford Hospital NHS Trust baby death scandal, investigating the circumstances in which the deaths occurred and securing redress for the families. If you have concerns about the care your child has received, our team is happy to discuss the matter with you and guide you through the process sensitively.