The infant mortality rate is the number of children that die under one year of age in a given year, per 1,000 live births. The neonatal mortality rate is the number of children that die under 28 days of age in a given year, per 1,000 live births. These are both common measures of health care quality, but they are also influenced by social, economic and environmental factors.
Conditions relating to premature birth, such as respiratory and cardiovascular disorders, and congenital abnormalities, are common causes of infant deaths. The three major causes of neonatal deaths worldwide are infections, premature birth and suffocation.
Measures that reduce poverty and mitigate the impact of poverty on the health of women before and during pregnancy will have a significant impact on the risk of stillbirth and death during infancy. Policies that are directed at improving the health of pregnant women (such as Stop Smoking Services), and early intervention services such as health visiting and midwifery, are likely to reduce infant and neonatal mortality rates.
For more information, see the recent explainer Understanding the health of babies and expectant mothers and the related blog, which asks: ‘Are the government's targets for reducing stillbirths and neonatal deaths achievable?’. See also the International comparisons of health and wellbeing in early childhood report.
Between 1990 and 2017, the infant mortality rate decreased considerably in all UK countries. Scotland showed the largest decrease, from 7.7 deaths per 1,000 live births in 1990 to 3.2 in 2018. However, the rate of decline of infant mortality has slowed in recent years. In England, the infant mortality rate fluctuated around 3.9 deaths per 1,000 live births between 2013 and 2018. Northern Ireland had the highest infant mortality rate of the UK countries in 2018, at 4.2 deaths per 1,000 live births.
As it stands, the government has no specific target for reducing overall infant mortality rates. But there is an ambition to achieve 50% reductions in stillbirth and neonatal mortality by 2025.
The infant mortality rate has been decreasing in all Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries since 2000. The UK has a relatively high rate of infant mortality compared to other countries, with 3.9 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2017. The country with the highest rate each year is the United States, while Japan, Finland and Sweden have the lowest rates.
One of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals was to reduce child mortality by two-thirds between 1990 and 2015. According to this, the UK should have reduced the 1990 infant mortality rate of 7.9 deaths per 1,000 live births to 2.6 by 2015. The UK only managed to reduce its infant mortality rate by half, to 3.9 deaths per 1,000 live births, so did not meet this target. In 2015, the MDGs were replaced by the Sustainable Development Goals where maternal and child health remains key to Goal 3, "ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages".
The neonatal mortality rate has been decreasing in most OECD countries since 2000. As with the infant mortality rate, the UK has a relatively high rate of neonatal mortality compared to other countries. In 2017, there were 2.8 neonatal deaths per 1,000 live births in the UK. The United States consistently has one of the highest neonatal mortality rates while Japan, Finland and Sweden have the lowest rates.
One of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals includes a target to reduce neonatal mortality to at least as low as 12 deaths per 1,000 live births by 2030. The UK has already met this global target, however, the NHS Long Term Plan recently reiterated the government's ambition to achieve a 50% reduction in stillbirth and neonatal mortality by 2025.
About this data
Figures represent the number of deaths registered in the calendar year. Figures show the country where the death occurred, rather than where the deceased was resident. Rates are calculated using the most up-to-date population estimates when the statistics are published. For Northern Ireland, the infant and neonatal mortality rates represent the rate per 1,000 live births, including non-Northern Ireland resident births.
For more information about ONS data, see Office for National Statistics, Vital Statistics in the UK.
Differences between countries in legislation governing registration of births and deaths, and misclassification of stillbirths and neonatal deaths makes it difficult to compare mortality at these very early gestations. Despite the standard World Health Organisation (WHO) definition of a live birth, not all countries calculate their mortality rates based on this, which makes comparison between countries challenging.
For more information about OECD data and indicators, see Health at a Glance 2019: OECD Indicators.