In response, Professor Russell Viner, President of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, says:
It is extremely worrying that infant mortality rates have increased yet again, and that the situation has significantly worsened since 2014.
Social inequalities are a major factor in causing infant deaths, and the risk of a baby dying dramatically increases with the level of maternal deprivation. Infants are more than twice as likely to die in England and Wales if they are born into a poor family rather than a wealthy one, and the gap is widening.
The causes behind child deaths are complex, but we know that infant mortality is heavily linked to the mother’s health during pregnancy, with smoking, poor nutrition, and substance misuse all having a highly negative impact. Maternal age plays a significant factor too – in the UK, over 5% of mothers are aged under 20 years, and just under 20% are aged 35 years and over, which are the age ranges with the highest risk of infant mortality.
It is possible that some of the increase relates to changes in the proportion of babies born prematurely and at low birth weight. Yet regardless of this, the UK has long had a poor record on infant mortality compared with similar countries.
To address the UK’s dismal infant mortality rates, it is paramount that the Government take immediate steps to tackle social inequality and improve maternal and early years care. Reducing maternal deprivation and providing properly funded supportive services to help women during pregnancy and early motherhood would begin to reverse these sobering statistics.
We welcomed the announcements on improvements in maternal and newborn services in the NHS Long-term Plan but need to see these delivered urgently. We also call for a reversal of the cuts to public health budgets which have slashed health visitor numbers. Babies and their mothers deserve better.