Robin Boylorn on Black Infant Mortality
Infant mortality refers to the death of an infant between 1 day and 1 year of age. Even with an overall decline in infant death in the United States, Alabama continues to have one of the highest rates of infant death in the country, alongside Arkansas and Mississippi.
While miscarriages and stillbirths, known as perinatal deaths, are usually excluded from infant mortality rates, they do count as pregnancy loss, and all black women experience all types of pregnancy loss at higher rates than white women.
The leading cause of mortality and morbidity in infants is prematurity or preterm birth, and low birth weight, which are more prevalent in black births, and account for 36% of all infant deaths. In Alabama, this also includes birth defects and sudden infant death syndrome.
Despite assumptions that babies die because of the poor choices or problematic behaviors of their mothers, or the socioeconomic conditions and failures of their communities, research and personal experiences complicate stereotypes by proving that while race and class are factors in infant death, they are not the only factors.
In a 2018 report released by Duke University’s Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity and Insight, researchers found that while women from lower socioeconomic situations are more likely to have a preterm birth, successful, well-educated, and high achieving black women have the highest risk and rate of infant mortality.
Black babies are not just dying because of their race, or the class they are born into, they are dying because of health disparities and a health care system that often fails to account for the relationship between black maternal mortality and black infant mortality.
There must be a non-stereotypical approach to understanding black infant death outside of the pathologies that presume black mothers are irresponsible, or that prenatal and postnatal care is universal. The unique needs of black women and the unique predicaments of black babies need to be anticipated and considered in treatment.
The Center for American Progress explains that to eliminate racial disparities in infant mortality, we must address racial disparities in infant mortality. Most reports suggest that healthy mothers have healthy babies, so insurance and health care for women and babies is important to help prevent poor outcomes and addressing preexisting conditions in expecting mothers can help prevent pregnancy complications. There must also be support for programs like Medicaid that disproportionately benefit poor women of color and their families, as well as a focus on social and reproductive justice initiatives that prioritize communities of color where these issues are most prevalent.
But what about black women who already have excellent health care? What about those who can afford specialists, who hire doulas, who do everything right during their pregnancies and have seemingly normal deliveries, but whose babies are no more viable because doctors didn’t anticipate the role of race and the impact of institutionalized racism on infant life expectancy.
Ultimately, to address the infant mortality crisis, we need to do more than ask why black babies are dying. We need to figure out how black babies can be saved.
I’m Robin Boylorn. Until next time, keep it crunk!
Written by Robin Boylorn
Edited by Brittany Young