To examine trends in mortality among babies registered solely by their mother (lone mothers) and to compare these with trends in infant mortality for couple registrations overall and couple registrations subdivided by social class of father.
Analysis of trends in infant death rates from 1975 to 1996 for the three groups. The data source was the national linked infant mortality file, containing all records of infant death in England and Wales linked to the respective birth records.
England and Wales.
All live births (n=14.3 million) from 1975 to 1996; all deaths of infants from birth to 12 months of age over the same period (n=135 800).
Main outcome measures
Death rates in the perinatal, neonatal, and postneonatal periods and for infancy overall.
For the babies of lone mothers infant mortality has fallen to less than a third of the 1975 level, with a clear reduction in the gap between the mortality in these babies compared with all couple registrations: the excess mortality in solely registered births was 79% in 1975 reducing to 33% in 1996. Most of the narrowing of the sole-couple differential was associated with the neonatal period, for which there is now no appreciable gap. For couple registrations analysed by social class of father, infant death rates have more than halved in each social class from 1975 to 1996. The reductions in mortality were greater in the late 1970s and early 1990s. Infant death rates in classes IV-V remained between 50% and 65% higher than in classes I-II. Differentials between social classes were largest in the postneonatal period and smallest in the perinatal and neonatal periods. The gap in perinatal and neonatal mortality between the babies of lone mothers and couple parents in social classes IV-V has disappeared.
The differential in infant mortality between social classes still exists, whereas the differential between sole and couple registrations has decreased, showing positive progress in the reduction of inequalities. As the reduction in the differential was confined to the neonatal period these improvements may be more a reflection of healthcare factors than of factors associated with lone mothers’ social and economic circumstances.
Key messagesSocial inequalities in infant mortality are widely regarded as unacceptable and as a spur to actionBabies of lone mothers and those born to couple parents in manual social classes continue to be at higher risk of infant mortality From 1975 to 1996 the differential in infant mortality between social classes for babies of couple parents showed little tendency to narrow, whereas there was a clear improvement in the mortality differential between the babies of lone and couple parentsThe pattern of reduction in the lone-couple differential—confined to the neonatal period—suggests that healthcare factors may have made a major contribution to the observed improvementIn contrast, the lack of improvement of the differentials in postneonatal mortality add to the concern that insufficient progress is being made in this critical period of babies’ lives with the groups at greatest risk