What are the Most Common Causes of Neonatal Mortality?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 09 November 2019
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Common causes of neonatal mortality include preterm birth, congenital conditions, and infection. The exact rates vary by nation. In developing countries, issues like malnutrition and disease are common causes of neonatal mortality, while in developed countries, congenital conditions and complications associated with preterm birth tend to top the statistics. A number of organizations, such as the World Health Organization, have engaged in campaigns to reduce preventable neonatal mortality as well as maternal deaths.

The term “neonatal mortality” refers to the deaths of infants within 28 days of birth. Birth defects are a common cause; in some cases they are not identified before a birth, and in others, they are diagnosed and parents proceed with the pregnancy in awareness of the risks. Many birth defects can cause death shortly after birth as they interfere with key functions like breathing. In these cases, supportive care only may be provided to the infant. Other birth defects are manageable, but cannot be treated in regions where access to health care is limited, causing neonatal mortality.

Preterm birth is another common culprit. While care for preterm babies has improved radically in developed countries, babies born too early are still at significant risk of complications like infections and cardiac arrhythmias. In nations where women cannot access high quality hospital care during preterm labor, the chances of infant survival decrease radically. In some settings, basic care like keeping the infant warm and well nourished may be the only medical care available.


Historically, dehydration as a result of diarrhea was a very common cause of neonatal mortality in the developing world. Efforts by international health organizations to educate parents about the use of rehydration solutions have reduced this common risk factor. Infants can also die as a result of malnutrition, a common concern during famine, and from infections like pneumonia, as their bodies are too fragile to fight off the infection.

Another cause of neonatal mortality is sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). This condition can be observed in a wide variety of settings, from nations where access to health care is excellent to remote areas where limited care is provided to mothers and children. The causes of SIDS are not well understood, and even when parents follow practical advice like using approved bedding, it can still happen. Research to learn more about why and how SIDS occurs is in progress in many nations to develop better practices for preventing and addressing it.


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