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Tennessee sees decline in infant sleep-related deaths

Tennessee’s infant mortality rate is on the decline for the first time in three years, according to new data released by the state Department of Health. The data show there were 38 fewer infant deaths in the state in 2018 compared with the year prior. 

Dr. Morgan McDonald, deputy commissioner for population health at the Tennessee Department of Health, said infant mortality is a critical indicator of overall population health.

“In particular, I think, it’s very noteworthy that we’ve had a decline in our sleep-related deaths,” McDonald said. “When we talk about our ABCs of safe sleep, what we mean by that is for infants to be placed alone, on their backs, and in a crib.”

Although the numbers are improving, McDonald said the mortality rate for black infants continues to be nearly twice as high as that of white babies. Tennessee’s current infant mortality rate still exceeds the national rate of 5.8 deaths per 1,000 live births.

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McDonald said many new mothers and families remain unaware of the hazards of placing a baby to sleep on its stomach.

“There’s so many different barriers to those ABCs of safe sleep, which is why we really want to make sure that that message is coming from all different sources, via the media,” she said. “And we look at how babies are positioned in movies, and in television ads, and even in things like diaper ads – that is another image in a caregiver’s mind.”

Each year, around 20% of infant deaths in Tennessee are due to unsafe sleeping conditions.

Many factors contribute to a healthy birth and first year of life. And McDonald said lack of access to early prenatal care, tobacco use, and even the ongoing opioid epidemic have all factored into the state’s infant death numbers.

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“Certainly poverty can have a significant impact on things like infant mortality,” she said. “And so we as a state have partnered with multiple different agencies to address those social factors in health.”

The Tennessee Department of Health has created an online dashboard that allows community partners to access infant mortality data for their region.

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