Infant killings during the first week after birth made up more than 9 percent of all child slayings between 1989 and 1998, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But the baby's first 24 hours are the most dangerous, accounting for almost 83 percent of the first-week slayings.
Women, and usually the child's mother, are responsible for 90 percent of the early murders, and 95 percent involve infants born outside the hospital.
The risk of being murdered is higher in a child's entire first year than at any other time before he or she is 17, the report said. Homicide is the 15th leading cause of infant death in this country. Birth defects, prematurity, and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) are the top three.
Child abuse experts said those findings aren't surprising. The first week, and first day, after birth is "a very high risk time. That's the group of mothers who panic, who conceal their pregnancy and kill their baby or drop it off in a Dumpster," said Marcia Herman-Giddens, senior fellow at the North Carolina Child Advocacy Institute in Raleigh.
Mothers who murder their infants are typically teens or adolescents, and have a history of mental illness, according to the CDC report.
To stop these killings, a growing number of states have passed "safe haven" laws that encourage reluctant mothers to turn their babies over to the authorities without fear of punishment. "The big problem that states have is getting the information out to the people who need it," Herman-Giddens said.
As for preventing other infant child killings, policy makers need to shift their focus, since it's fathers, and not mothers, who are responsible for the vast majority of these later deaths, Herman-Giddens said.
Men tend to harm babies out of frustration with their behavior, such as inconsolable crying or sleeping trouble. Indeed, the CDC report found that infant killings have their second peak around week eight after birth, about the time babies cry the most. That period also matches the peak for SIDS, making the two difficult to separate.
Men in American society are typically shut out of the early parenting process, as things like prenatal care focus on expecting mothers, Herman-Giddens said. "Fathers and father figures are left out to the detriment of the child."
Dr. Len Paulozzi, a CDC medical epidemiologist and a co-author of the study, said the agency recognized that shifting patterns in who kills infants, and when, affects the emphasis of prevention programs. "I think in general that CDC recognizes that we need to study both the victims and the perpetrators to try to figure out the best approaches to prevention," he said.
The report identified 3,312 infant killings between 1989 and 1998, or roughly 330 a year -- a small fraction of the 18,000-odd homicides annually in this country. The overwhelming bulk occurred the day the babies were born, and the risk of fatal child abuse dropped off to near zero after the first year of life.
Unlike killings of teens and adults, which involve knives, guns and other weapons, infanticides are typically committed by hand, including beatings and smotherings, Paulozzi said.
Homicide again becomes a significant cause of death when children enter their middle teens, the report found, cresting in the early 20s before tapering off in later adulthood.
The report comes as Texas jurors are hearing the trial of Andrea Yates, the Houston mother accused of killing her five children, ages 6 months to 7 years.
What To Do: To find out more about child abuse in America, visit the National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect Information or Prevent Child Abuse America.