THURSDAY, April 3, 2008 (HealthDay News) -- An estimated 91,000 babies in the United States were victims of maltreatment in 2006 during their first year of life, including 29,181 infants who suffered abuse or neglect during their first week of life, federal officials reported Thursday.
The report -- the first national examination of the risk for nonfatal maltreatment of children less than 1 year old -- was based on data from the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System.
"We weren't surprised by these numbers, but we certainly were distressed," Ileana Arias, director of U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, said during a teleconference. "It's a picture you don't even want to imagine, that this number of infants are being maltreated in ways that are largely preventable."
Most maltreatment of infants less than a week old was the result of neglect, which is the failure to provide for basic physical and emotional needs or to protect the child from harm, Arias said. Neglect accounted for 68.5 percent of the reported cases. A smaller number of infants -- 13.2 percent -- were victims of physical abuse by a parent or caregiver that resulted in injury during the first week of life, she said.
Almost 40 percent of the infants were abused or neglected during their first month after birth.
The causes of the maltreatment aren't clear from the data, Arias said. However, neglect includes abandonment and prenatal exposure to drugs, which appear to be common problems, she said.
When children are mistreated, the consequences can haunt them the rest of their lives, Arias noted.
Children who suffer maltreatment are at higher risk for engaging in risky behaviors -- such as alcohol and drug abuse -- during adolescence and adulthood, Arias said. "Because of that risk behavior, these people have higher risk of developing chronic conditions, such as diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular disease," she said.
Although the new report looked at nonfatal maltreatment of infants, Arias noted that neglect and abuse is the leading cause of death in children.
"It is the third-leading cause of death for kids under the age of 3, and the fifth-leading cause of death for children between the ages of 1 and 9. About 19 percent of child-maltreatment deaths occur among babies who are less than 1 year of age," she said.
The findings were published in the April 4 edition of the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
Arias said the CDC is actively trying to develop programs to prevent the maltreatment of infants. "We are very committed to making sure that we prevent any instance of maltreatment. We want to get the kids before they are ever hit or neglected," she said.
Dr. Desmond Runyan, a professor of pediatrics at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine and an expert in child welfare, said he's convinced that only a fraction of maltreatment cases are ever reported.
"I'm sure these numbers underestimate the problem," he said. "Agencies investigate cases that come to their attention, because they're flagrant and are reported."
However, Runyan added that children are better treated now than in the past. "Taking the long historical view, we are at a place now where kids are probably safer than they've ever been in the history of the human race," he said.
Runyan thinks education about parenting -- particularly for teens -- is the key to preventing the maltreatment of infants and children.
"We still have a situation where you need a license to drive a car, but you don't need a license to be a parent," he said. "Kids don't come with owners' manuals. They cry and annoy people.
"Family planning and education in the schools about parenting and delaying having children until people are a little bit older are the things that probably would have the most dramatic impact on reducing the incidence of abuse and neglect," Runyan added.
For more on child abuse and neglect, visit the U.S. Administration for Children and Families.