Although supine sleep positioning of preterm infants is becoming more common, racial disparities remain, according to a retrospective analysis involving more than 66,000 mothers.
Non-Hispanic Black preterm infants were 39%-56% less likely to sleep on their backs than were non-Hispanic White preterm infants, reported lead author Sunah S. Hwang, MD, MPH, of the University Colorado, Aurora, and colleagues.
According to the investigators, these findings may explain, in part, why the risk of sudden unexpected infant death (SUID) is more than twofold higher among non-Hispanic Black preterm infants than non-Hispanic White preterm infants.
“During the first year of life, one of the most effective and modifiable parental behaviors that may reduce the risk for SUID is adhering to safe infant sleep practices, including supine sleep positioning or back-sleeping,” wrote Hwang and colleagues. The report is in the Journal of Pediatrics. “For the healthy-term population, research on the racial/ethnic disparity in adherence to safe sleep practices is robust, but for preterm infants who are at much higher risk for SUID, less is known.”
To address this knowledge gap, the investigators conducted a retrospective study using data from the Pregnancy Risk Assessment Monitoring System (PRAMS), a population-based perinatal surveillance system. The final dataset involved 66,131 mothers who gave birth to preterm infants in 16 states between 2000 and 2015. The sample size was weighted to 1,020,986 mothers.
The investigators evaluated annual marginal prevalence of supine sleep positioning among two cohorts: early preterm infants (gestational age less than 34 weeks) and late preterm infants (gestational age 34-36 weeks). The primary outcome was rate of supine sleep positioning, a practice that must have been followed consistently, excluding other positions (i.e. prone or side).
Mothers were grouped by race/ethnicity into four categories: non-Hispanic Black, non-Hispanic White, Hispanic, and other. Several other maternal and infant characteristics were recorded, including marital status, maternal age, education, insurance prior to birth, history of previous live birth, insurance, method of delivery, birth weight, and sex.
From 2000 to 2015, the overall adjusted odds of supine sleep positioning increased by 8.5% in the early preterm group and 5.2% in the late preterm group. This intergroup difference may be due to disparate levels of in-hospital education, the investigators suggested.
“Perhaps the longer NICU hospitalization for early preterm infants compared with late preterm infants affords greater opportunities for parental education and engagement about safe sleep practices,” they wrote.
Among early preterm infants, odds percentages increased by 7.3%, 7.7%, and 10.0% for non-Hispanic Black, Hispanic, and non-Hispanic White mothers, respectively. For late preterm infants, respective rates increased by 5.9%, 4.8%, and 5.8% for non-Hispanic Black, Hispanic, and non-Hispanic White mothers.
Despite these improvements, racial disparities were still observed. Non-Hispanic Black mothers reported lower rates of supine sleep positioning for both early preterm infants (odds ratio [OR], 0.61; P less than .0001) and late preterm infants (OR, 0.44; P less than .0001) compared with non-Hispanic White mothers.
These disparities seem “to be in line with racial/ethnic disparity trends in infant mortality and in SUID rates that have persisted for decades among infants,” the investigators wrote.
To a lesser degree, and lacking statistical significance, Hispanic mothers reported lower odds of supine sleep positioning than the odds of White mothers for both early preterm infants (OR, 0.80; P = .1670) and late preterm infants (OR, 0.81; P = .1054).
According to Hwang and colleagues, more specific demographic data are needed to accurately describe supine sleep positioning rates among Hispanic mothers, partly because of the heterogeneity of this cohort.
“A large body of literature has shown significant variability by immigrant status and country of origin in several infant health outcomes among the Hispanic population,” the investigators wrote. “This study was unable to stratify the Hispanic cohort by these characteristics and thus the distribution of supine sleep positioning prevalence across different Hispanic subgroups could not be demonstrated in this study.”
The investigators also suggested that interventional studies are needed.
“Additional efforts to understand the barriers and facilitators to SSP [supine sleep positioning] adherence among all preterm infant caregivers, particularly non-Hispanic Black and Hispanic parents, are needed so that novel interventions can then be developed,” they wrote.
According to Denice Cora-Bramble, MD, MBA, chief diversity officer at Children’s National Hospital and professor of pediatrics at George Washington University, Washington, DC, the observed improvements in supine sleep positioning may predict lower rates of infant mortality, but more work in the area is needed.
“In spite of improvement in infants’ supine sleep positioning during the study period, racial/ethnic disparities persisted among non-Hispanic Blacks and Hispanics,” Cora-Bramble said. “That there was improvement among the populations included in the study is significant because of the associated and expected decrease in infant mortality. However, the study results need to be evaluated within the context of [the study’s] limitations, such as the inclusion of only sixteen states in the data analysis. More research is needed to understand and effectively address the disparities highlighted in the study.”
The investigators and Cora-Bramble reported no conflicts of interest.