Each year in the U.S. approximately 3,000 infants under the age of 12-months die as a result of accidents that are preventable. It is heartbreaking and tragic for everyone involved. Any parent or caregiver who has gone through this would give anything to have their baby back, and would do anything to prevent it from happening to anybody else.
The loss of a child changes a family forever and often impacts communities and towns as well; sometimes even an entire country. We hope, at least, that no child dies in vain and that something can be learned from each one of these babies that left us too soon.
Some of these accidental causes of death get a lot of attention because they impact the greatest number of babies and families. Even major educational initiatives have been spurred as a result of some of these tragedies.
At the same time, some of the causes outlined here are lesser known but this certainly doesn’t diminish their impact on the families who have suffered by them. Parents should make sure that anybody who cares for their baby is aware of all of these risks.
Of course, we’d love to reduce the number of accidental infant deaths to ‘zero’ but that’s unlikely to happen. Hopefully sharing these causes will help at least one family. Here we outline 13 of the top accidental and preventable causes of infant death in an effort to educate parents and caregivers about the associated risks. We also provide steps that everyone can take to ensure these types of tragedies are reduced. Even the death of one baby is too many.
15 SIDS – 1,500 deaths/year
SIDS is the number one accidental cause of infant death each year in the U.S. Every parent is familiar with the term SIDS and everybody fears it. It stands for sudden infant death syndrome and is used in relation to the death of infants aged 1-month to 1-year-old. A death is attributed to SIDS if it is sudden, unexpected and with no apparent cause. It is a truly terrifying phenomenon for parents.
Although the number of SIDS deaths has trended downwards, at present approximately 1,500 deaths are attributed to SIDS in the U.S. each year. SIDS deaths are most commonly associated with sleep. Thus, ensuring safe sleeping conditions for babies is paramount.
Recommendations to reduce the risk of SIDS include:
- Put baby to sleep on his/her back
- Firm bed, no toys, no soft bedding
- Don’t smoke around baby
- Don’t co-sleep with baby
- Breastfeed as long as possible
- Immunize baby
- Regulate baby’s temperature
- Don’t give baby honey
SIDS is still not completely understood but awareness and education are naturally the first steps to reduce these heartbreaking tragedies
14 Co-Sleeping Suffocation – 850 deaths/year
Believe it or not, approximately 850 babies die each year from accidental strangulation or suffocation in bed as a result of co-sleeping with parents or caregivers. These deaths are often classified as SIDS but here we have separated these deaths into their own category.
Of course, parents have the best intentions when they bring their infants into bed with them. Keep them safe, keep them close, and everybody gets some rest. Right? Unfortunately, the risks associated with co-sleeping are great. Soft bedding and mattresses pose major issues. An infant’s muscles are not developed enough to change positions if their breathing passages are compromised such that suffocation occurs.
Another risk, of course, is that a parent may roll onto their baby thereby suffocating him/her. This is heartbreaking but true. If a parent decides to co-sleep with their infant, there are guidelines for how to do this as safely as possible.
Recommendations for safe co-sleeping include:
- Put baby to sleep on his/her back
- Firm sleep surface
- Tight bedding
- Mattress tight against headboard
- No soft items near baby’s face
- No space between bed and adjacent wall
- Place baby beside mom, not in between mom and dad
Even though these recommendations will reduce the risk that a baby suffocates while co-sleeping, many experts still recommend against this practice.
13 Circumcision - 100 deaths/year
Circumcision is less common today than it was in the past as more parents now recognize it as an unnecessary and potentially traumatic procedure for their baby boys. As a result, this cause of death is particularly surprising. Still, information today suggests that the percentage of babies circumcised has dropped from upwards of 80% in the ‘70s to somewhere around 58% today.
Research indicates that upwards of 100 baby boys die each year as a direct result of circumcision or circumcision-related complications. Oftentimes these deaths are not recorded as circumcision-related deaths but rather as their associated complications such as stroke, bleeding, infection or reactions to anaesthesia. As such, the number of circumcision deaths may even be higher. Parents think a procedure such as this is harmless and it ends up being heartbreaking.
Circumcision is deemed an unnecessary surgery but is still conducted today for cosmetic reasons, due to religious beliefs or due to pressure from previous generations and/or doctors. It’s important to weigh if the risks are worth it, and in this case, they likely are not.
12 Vehicular/Car Seat-Related – 61 deaths/year
Not surprisingly, motor vehicle deaths claim their fair share of babies, approximately 70 each year. Sadly, of course, some of these are naturally inevitable but some could be avoided with the use of properly installed car seats.
Car seat safety is drilled into the minds of parents and caregivers these days. Even so, some don’t use them, some don’t use them properly, and some don't have any idea they are not following guidelines.
There are some simple steps parents can follow to ensure their car seat is as safe as possible for their baby:
- Ensure care seat is the right size for baby
- Have car seat installed or checked by an expert regularly
- Keep baby rear facing until at least 2-years of age
- Install car seat in back seat of car
- Never put baby in car seat wearing bulky clothing or wrapped in a blanket under straps
- Ensure shoulder straps are at or below baby’s shoulders
- Harness should be pulled snug and straps should lie flat
- Chest clip should be at armpit level
- Regularly clean car seat to ensure there are no obstructions
We certainly can’t control what other drivers do but we can make our own vehicles and their operation as safe as possible for our tiny passengers.
11 Choking – 57 deaths/year
Babies are curious and very oral creatures. This means that almost everything they encounter will end up in their mouths. Mouthing is a very important part of infant development and it’s completely normal, but it means caregivers must be extra vigilant.
When small objects aren’t tucked away and we turn our heads for an instant, they run the risk of ending up in little mouths. At best, these items will be extracted or possibly swallowed and passed without ill effect but the greatest risk is that a baby will choke. Every year approximately 60 babies die from choking.
Toys and trinkets naturally pose a risk for curious babies so it’s imperative to baby proof with vigor and keep all such items out of reach. Further as your baby grows and begins to eat solid food, certain foods pose a great risk for choking in infants and young children.
Avoid the following foods to reduce the risk of an infant or child death due to choking:
- Hot dogs
- Peanut butter
- Gum and hard candy
10 Positional Asphyxia – 40 deaths/year
Positional asphyxia claims the lives of approximately 40 babies every year. It is defined as the inability of a person to get enough air to breath due to the position of his or her body. This happens most often in young babies and oftentimes while they are sleeping.
Positional asphyxia can occur when a baby’s nose or mouth is blocked off such that they can’t get adequate air, or if they are slouched down and their airway closes.
Some recorded instances of deaths such as these have taken place when babies fall asleep in an infant carrier attached to mom or dad and smother as a result, on a soft surface such as a couch or bean bag chair, or when they fall asleep in a car seat or rocker. In all of these situations, newborns or young babies don't have the neck strength to lift their heads enough to breathe and the result is shocking and heartbreaking.
9 Hot Car Deaths – 37 deaths/year
Accidentally forgetting a baby in a hot car is every parent’s worst nightmare but each year approximately 37 babies and toddlers die this way. We all think it can’t happen to us but if you speak to any parent to whom it has happened, they will say they believed the same thing. Unfortunately, these numbers are not trending downwards quickly enough.
Evidence from other parents indicates that believing someone could never forget their child in a hot car is simply not enough. In today’s busy world where parents are trying to juggle everything including a career and children, fatal mistakes happen.
The following list outlines some great tips to ensure a parent or caregiver never forgets their baby in the car:
- Get in the habit of always checking backseat
- Keep something you need in backseat
- Keep a reminder of child in the front seat
- Always lock the doors so no child can climb in the car at home
- Put keys/fobs out of reach to prevent a child from climbing in the car at home
- Have childcare provider call if child doesn’t arrive
- Text or call spouse to confirm baby is safely at childcare
- If you see another child locked in a car, do something
8 Drowning – 30 deaths/year
Drowning remains a leading cause of death in infants and young children. Approximately 30 babies under the age of 1-year-old die by drowning each year. This number increases to approximately 400 in children between the ages of 1 and 4.
Infants are particularly at risk in the bath given that they can drown in almost no water at all. Older and more mobile children die in bathtubs, pools, spas, wading pools or even in irrigation ditches or other open standing water.
Parents simply cannot be too vigilant, particularly where infants are concerned. To follow are several rules-of-thumb that should never be broken when bathing an infant or young baby:
- Never leave baby unattended, even for an instant
- Never leave baby under the care of an older child in the tub
- Always support infant’s head and neck in the tub
- Bath aids are not safety devices
- Have child take swimming lessons as early as possible
7 Fires/burns – 15 deaths/year
Approximately 15 babies die from fires or burns each year. This can occur if a curious toddler grabs a hot pot from the stove and receives a serious scald or burn from a hot liquid. Further, once infants are on the move they are also subject to injury and death as a result of getting too close to fires in fireplaces, barbecue pits and trash fires, or playing with matches and lighters.
Of course, some of these deaths are the result of accidents that have nothing to do with the baby but might occur because of a forgotten cigarette, faulty wiring, or due to a pot left on the stove that leads to a fatal house fire.
The only answer to any of these situations is vigilance and monitoring.
Scalding deaths and injuries can also occur in the bathroom because of bath water that is too hot. This is more likely to be the case of child abuse, sadly, so we can’t consider those deaths accidents.
6 Poisoning – 9 deaths/year
Unfortunately poisoning takes the lives of about 10 babies each year. We are grateful the number isn’t any higher. This can occur if a curious baby gets ahold of household items such as cleaning products, medications, detergent pods or other toxic substances. Another cause of accidental poisoning is medication dosing mistakes.
The best way to prevent an accidental poisoning is to keep any potentially harmful substances locked away and/or out of reach of a curious baby. And in terms of medication dosing, have your partner double-check your work or call a healthcare professional if you are at all uncertain about dosing. When dealing with such a tiny person, even a small mistake can be harmful.
A couple of other ways to reduce the risk of a poison accident in the home is to throw items away that are no longer needed. If keeping them poses a risk, then toss them out. Know the poison control number and have it affixed to every phone in your house and store it in your cell phone. If in doubt, head to the emergency room.
5 Falls – 8 deaths/year
Falls resulting in the accidental death of an infant can occur in a number of ways. Some are easily preventable but others simply require vigilance on the part of caregivers as babies and children explore their world. Approximately 8 deaths occur each year as a result of falls.
Some babies have died falling from apartment or high-rise windows or balconies after loosening a screen or falling through a railing. Others have sustained head injuries serious enough to result in death after falling from furniture or out of bed. Oftentimes these falls are viewed as minor but result in serious consequences. Other toddlers have sustained injuries serious enough to lead to death by falling from playground equipment or as a result of falling down stairs.
Noteworthy is that infant walkers are particularly dangerous when we consider them as falling hazards. In fact, due to the incidence of death due to walkers, they are actually illegal to own or sell in Canada as well as in several other countries in the world.
Falls certainly aren’t the cause of a high number of infant deaths, but even one is too many.
4 Other - Unknown # deaths/year
Aside from the preventable causes of infant death we have outlined already, there are several others worth mentioning that don’t result in a large number of infant deaths but still deserve a place on this list. Tragedies like accidental shootings, animal attacks and other flukey accidents occur every year as well.
Several babies will die every year as a result of a firearm stored in their own homes. Sometimes it will be a parent or relative that accidentally discharges it but sometimes it will be the baby’s own sibling. Storing guns safely is paramount. Or better yet, don’t have one in your home.
Several babies will also die every year as a result of injuries sustained by their own family pet or somebody else’s. As much as anybody trusts their dog, a dog and a baby should never be left unattended.
Some incidents resulting in the death of a young child are tougher to pinpoint and prevent because they are incredibly flukey and yet very unfortunate. They include things like a parent accidentally running a child over while playing in their driveway or even lawnmower accidents. The only thing we can do is implore parents to be aware of their surroundings and check, check, and double-check.
3 Fatal Accidents Most Likely To Occur At Home
Almost all of the tragic situations outlined here resulting in the accidental death of an infant are most likely to occur at home. For many parents, this makes the outcome even more heartbreaking. Home is supposed to be cozy, safe, and comforting but it can often hold a plethora of hidden hazards.
The best case scenario for many of these accidents is that they are non-fatal but even so they can lead to serious injury. Reports suggest that accidents are most likely to happen in the living and dining room but that the most serious accidents happen in the kitchen, bedroom, and on the stairs.
This makes a lot of sense. We all spend the most time at home with our infants and toddlers and they are naturally inclined to explore their environments so they can get into a lot of trouble.
Some of the risks outlined here are on a downward trend but the same cannot be said for all unfortunately. One piece of very good news is that the number of deaths associated with SIDS is lower than it was 15 years ago. The same holds true for deaths as a result of car seat safety. Much of this we can attribute to education. When the risk factors are lowered, the results are positive. The government has focused particular efforts on reducing SIDS and increasing car seat safety, and it’s paid off.
We are also really happy that circumcision-related deaths and complications are trending downwards. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for co-sleeping. Co-sleeping is more accepted and more practiced now than it used to be so the number of associated deaths is higher. Further, the number of hot car deaths has not changed substantively in the past 20 years which is both frustrating and infuriating.
For other preventable causes of infant death, the numbers are quite low but sadly, we doubt they will ever disappear completely.
Of course education is a huge factor in preventing these accidental tragedies from occurring. Simply knowing that some of these risks exist is the first step.
For several of the causes indicated here, we have provided tips, outlines, and recommendations to reduce the likelihood of their occurrence. Practicing these with rigor may not be foolproof but it will certainly aid in keeping little ones safe. Hopefully the overall number of fatalities can be reduced.
As parents and caregivers, we must be extra-vigilant when it comes to our environments. Tuck hazards away or throw them in the garbage. Make sure older siblings are conscious of keeping the environment safe for babies as well. Think twice about co-sleeping, or letting a baby sleep in a car seat or swing, and never leave them alone in the bath or near a hot stove.
Our babies are dependent on us for everything. First and foremost, this means keeping them safe at all times to the best of our ability. Even one death is one too many.