A stressed mother – and very little help – can impact birth outcomes
Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. It is being reprinted as part of a partnership between the Community Journal and Journal Sentinel to help address a critical issue in our community.
by James E. Causey — Courtesy of Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Reprinted August 21, 2011
She’s 26, seven months pregnant, raising a 3-year-old daughter and has no support from her child’s father because he’s incarcerated.
“He won’t get out until 2013,” Harris told me as her daughter, Lavayah Carter, squirmed on a bench at Milwaukee Health Services Inc. “Our son will be 3 by then.” When there is little to no help from the father, and the mother is left to rely on family members just to do tasks such as taking her to the grocery store or taking her to do the laundry, the “do everything” pressure can be overwhelming and have an impact on birth outcomes.
A baby in sub- Saharan Africa has a better chance of making it to his or her first birthday than a child born on N. Keefe St. in the 53216 ZIP code, where Harris lives. From 2000 to 2009, 84 babies died in that ZIP code.
One baby’s preventable death is one too many. That’s why it’s important for Milwaukee to identify pregnant women at the highest risk early on and provide them with the support they need to reduce their stress and provide them with the care they need to deliver a healthy child.
Recently, the United Way of Greater Milwaukee announced that it will partner with the City of Milwaukee to expand its intensive home visitation program. The efforts will use health care providers and community-based organizations to identify pregnant women living in the ZIP codes with the worst birth outcomes: 53216, 53210 and 53206.
The $200,000 grant will allow the city to hire a nurse and social worker, to join the city’s Empowering Families of Milwaukee program. The nurse and social worker team will do home visits and talk with pregnant women to help them obtain good prenatal care, improve their diets and find ways for them to reduce their stress.
In 2009, 122 infants died in the city. Studies suggest that the more people the city has on the ground with direct contact with pregnant mothers, the better the birth outcomes.
Imagine what could happen if these efforts were expanded.
Stress is the biggest factor impacting Harris’ life, and she says having someone by her side – just to go with her on doctor’s visits – would help.
Milwaukee Health Commission- er Bevan Baker told me that if a woman is stressed and depressed during her pregnancy, it can affect the developing fetus. Science supports this observation.
Harris sees a psychologist at Milwaukee Health Services for depression, and she takes medication when she says her depression starts to get the best of her.
“Sometimes I don’t feel like I want to get out of bed, but I know I have to for my daughter and for my unborn child. But it’s hard,” Harris said.
She understands depression. She was depressed for years after she broke her neck and both femur bones in a 2002 car accident. It was a struggle, but she slowly began to regain control of her life. Being pregnant with little support from the father of her daughter and her unborn child is a different kind of stress because it’s not just about her. Her mother works full time but helps when she can. She says she talks on the phone to the mother of her children’s father, but that’s about it.
When I asked Harris when was the last time she had been pampered, she looked puzzled.
When I asked her when was the last time someone held a door open for her or gave her a massage and didn’t expect anything in return, she told me that she could not remember. She said it would be nice just to have someone help her carry her bags.
Stress is normal during pregnancy, but when the woman’s body is in a constant state of stress, the body produces the hormone cortisol, which can raise the baby’s blood pressure. A mother’s stress has been linked to hyperactivity and behavioral problems in her children.
One way to ensure a stronger support system is to increase marriage rates. In 1970, 64.2% of all African-American families in Milwaukee County were husband-and-wife families. By 1980, that number dipped to 44.3%. Today, less than 28% of black families are married, according to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Ideally, a two-parent household provides kids the stability they need. But a marriage certificate doesn’t necessarily guarantee a stable foundation for the children or their parents.
Another problem is the high rate of black male incarceration in Milwaukee. Harris said her child’s father was jailed when she was just 21/3 months pregnant for violating his parole on a gun charge.
Education has to be stressed; it can help to break the school-to-prison pipeline.
Right now, about half of black boys graduate from high school on time. Without an education, these men become fathers of children they cannot take care of because they can’t find a job.
With a 50% graduation rate for black males, and many more job seekers than there are jobs in the Milwaukee area, it’s no surprise that Wisconsin has the second-highest rate of black incarceration in the nation.
Harris considered having an abortion.
“I just didn’t feel that it was right, because my child didn’t ask to be in this situation,” she told me as she rubbed her belly.
I’m glad she gave her unborn child a chance.
As a community, we all need to chip in to ensure that all babies are born into the world happy and healthy.