Infant Mortality Rates: 1912 and 2012

17-year-old Helena Muffly wrote exactly 100 years ago today: 

Wednesday, April 10, 1912:  I rubbed my shoulder rather badly when I happened to get a tumble. It’s sore yet, besides I have a big hole in my waist to mend.

Her middle-aged granddaughter’s comments 100 years later:

Since Grandma’s diary entry a hundred years ago today is self-explanatory, I’m going to follow-up on yesterday’s post.

Click on graph to enlarge.

She wrote that her nephew died shortly after he was born. I wondered how much infant mortality has decreased over the years.

I discovered that the infant death rate has decreased a lot over the years–modern medicine has done wonders—but that it’s complicated to come up with accurate numbers.

First, a couple definitions—

Neonatal mortality rate—The number of babies per thousand births who die within the first 28 days after birth. (The definition was a little looser a hundred years ago.)

Infant mortality rate—The number of babies per thousand births who die within the first year after birth.

Now the complications–

In the early 1900’s most births were at home—and the births and deaths of babies who were stillborn or died shortly after birth were often not recorded.  Only 7 states calculated a neonatal mortality rate back then, but fortunately Pennsylvania—where Grandma lived– was one of those states.

Pennsylvania’s neonatal mortality rate a hundred years ago  was 140 deaths per thousand births which was about average for the states that calculated the rate.  Today the rate is 5 neonatal deaths per thousand births. As it was a hundred years ago—Pennsylvania is still a typical state near the median of all states.

Likewise the infant mortality rate was much higher a hundred years ago than now. Back then 150 infants per 1,000 births died in the first year of life. Now it is about 8 per thousand births.

For those of you who care about the details or want to dig deeper into the data—

Since I couldn’t find 1912 details, I used 1910 data and assumed that the neonatal and infant mortality rates were about the same. Likewise, I couldn’t find 2012 data—so used date from the most recent year available (2007).

The rates from a hundred years ago are from a 1915 journal article published by the American Statistical Association called The Present Position of Infant Mortality: Its Recent Decline in the United States.

(It’s interesting that the title suggests that even in early 1900’s the infant mortality rate was declining. I wonder what it had been in the 1800s.)

The recent numbers were calculated by the Center for Disease Control and are on the Child Health USA site.

16 thoughts on “Infant Mortality Rates: 1912 and 2012

    1. When doing genealogy, it seems like there are so many women who lost children at birth or soon after. I can’t even begin to imagine how they must have felt. It makes me really appreciate how far we’ve come with obstetrics and pediatrics in the last hundred years.

      1. One of my uncles died when he was only three days old, and my grandma couldn’t go to his funeral ’cause she was still in the hospital. Such an awful story. Though I’m not sure much could’ve been done for him even today, I bet they would’ve been able to detect his heart problem, and my grandma would’ve definitely been able to go to his funeral, I’m sure.

  1. The women in my family suffered the lost of babies, so many stillborns. They lost babies before baby’s first birthday due to colds, flu, pneumonia, strep throat, measles, whooping cough, etc. Two babies were discovered dead, one is reported to have smothered and the other is unknown. So sad.

  2. We really do take for granted that our children will survive and be healthy..truly a tribute to medical advances. Some women were fortunate not to have problems but others either lost children or their own lives

  3. My grandma lost her first baby during the flu epidemic of 1919. He lived just 12 days. She lost another baby who was almost three months old. He died in his sleep. She had 7 other children, 6 of who lived to adulthood. The change in statistics in the last 100 years is staggering.

  4. About the 1800s – I’m not sure if this was typical or not but my 2nd-great-grandmother lived in Massachusetts from 1840-1928. It makes me sad that only three of her eight children (born between 1863 and 1880) lived to adulthood.

    1. I’ve heard that’s one of the reasons people had so many kids before modern medicine, because they anticipated only having a few live long. It’s a very sad thing. I’d hate to have a kid and not know if I’d get to keep it very long. Granted, today we don’t even know, but it’s not usually on the top of our minds.

  5. I was asked to coordinate a memorial event for my deceased father’s second last surviving brother (of 7 boys and 1 girl), and as we were putting plans together for a memorial grove of trees dedicated to my grandfather and grandmother and all the children and their spouses, I also suggested that we memorialize a sister that had lived only a few days after birth (right after my father, the 2nd child) and a sister that our family history had indicated was stillborn after the youngest son (whose wife is helping me get this event organized). In a conversation with my surviving uncle, he dropped a big surprise that there had been even one more stillborn sister that isn’t mentioned in the family history and was never named (the other two had been named). This had never, ever been mentioned by any of the older siblings before, but as I told my uncle, with him being the last surviving member of my dad’s generation, he pretty much can say anything and re-write the family history. This would have happened in the early to late 40’s in rural Minnesota. All my father’s siblings were born at home. I’m not sure where to go to see if there is any way of verifying this. I’m planning to talk to a funeral director friend to see if he can shed any light on practices in Minnesota. I want to help my generation to understand the challenges my grandfather and grandmother had in their lives, and I want to understand how people (my family) dealt with such tragedy. My grandmother died 4 years before I was born, and I would love to have known her. She must have been a tremendously strong woman!

  6. I cannot say about Pennsylvania in the early 1900s. However, I learned in a postgraduate history class that about 1 in 2 children would die before adulthood in Germany in the early 1800s. I suspect this was reflective of how it was most places, with a third to half of all children never reaching adulthood. It should also be noted that, if one survived until age 18 in the middle ages, they had a good chance of living until their 60s or 70s; the avg. lifespan was severely impacted by the shear number of those who did not. On a more personal note, I do know one of my grandfather’s siblings, an infant boy, died during the Spanish flu pandemic circa 1918, though surprisingly that was the only sibling to die out of about eight or so.

    1. You’re absolutely right. Many people 100 years ago lived long lives. I’m often surprised when I walk through a cemetery how many of the old gravestones are for people who lived well into their 80s and 90s.

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