Background: Sudden unexpected infant death (SUID) represents a broad group of explained and unexplained infant deaths (<1 year old). Explaining why SUID occurs is critical to understanding etiology and prevention. Death certificate data cannot differentiate explained from unexplained SUID cases nor describe the surrounding circumstances. We report SUID rates by explained and unexplained categories and describe demographics and history of recent injury or illness using the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention SUID Case Registry.
Methods: The registry is a population-based surveillance system built on Child Death Review programs. Data are derived from multiple sources, including death certificates, scene investigations, and autopsy reports. Cases included SUIDs reported by states or jurisdictions participating in the registry during 2011-2017. Cases were classified into explained and unexplained categories by using the registry’s classification system. Frequencies, percentages, and mortality rates per 100 000 live births were calculated.
Results: Of the 4929 SUID cases, 82% were categorized as unexplained. Among all cases, 73% had complete case information. Most SUIDs (72%) occurred in an unsafe sleep environment. The SUID mortality rate was 97.3 per 100 000 live births. Among explained and possible suffocation deaths, ∼75% resulted from airway obstruction attributed to soft bedding.
Conclusions: Unsafe sleep factors were common in explained and unexplained SUID cases, but deaths could only be classified as explained suffocation for ∼20% of cases. Further analysis of unexplained deaths, including continued improvements to death scene investigation and documentation, may generate hypotheses for physiologic and genetic research, advance our understanding of gaps in SUID investigation, and enhance our understanding of infants at highest risk.