The nation's infant death rate registered the sharpest fall since 1981 last year, but black babies continued to fare far worse than whites, federal public health officials said Saturday.

The overall mortality rate for infants was 9.1 per 1,000 in 1990, down from 9.7 deaths in 1989, the officials said, citing provisional data gathered by the Health and Human Services Department's National Center for Health Statistics.But the death rate for black infants remained far ahead of that for white babies, according to the new report.

Among blacks, the rate of infant mortality was 17.6 per 1,000, more than twice the 8.5 rate for white infants, the government found.

The new figures are part of a report on the state of the nation's health that is to be made public Monday by Health Secretary Louis Sullivan at a news conference, the officials said.

The decline in infant mortality represented a drop of 6 percent, compared with an average 2.5 percent annual decline during the 1980s.

Though U.S. infant mortality rates have been dropping steadily in recent decades, a dramatic slowdown in the rate of the decline in recent years has become a source of profound embarrassment to federal health policymakers.

Child health experts have attributed the slowdown primarily to government efforts to reduce federal budget deficits by trimming social welfare programs including public health spending.

The slowdown has left the United States trailing behind many other industrialized nations in combating infant mortality, including virtually all of Europe, Japan, Canada, Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand and Singapore, according to United Nations data.

The persistent gap between the death rates of minority and white babies has been of particular concern to Sullivan, a black physician who has set as one of his chief goals the narrowing of inequalities between the quality of health care available to black and white Americans.

"The continuing disparities between minority and majority populations represent a major health challenge" for the nation in the 1990s, the government said in a September 1990 report on national health goals.