Losing a child before his or her first birthday is an unthinkable tragedy for any parent – and unfortunately occurs too often in Louisiana, where we far outpace the nation in infant mortality.
With over seven deaths per 1,000 live births vs. the national average of fewer than six per 1,000, Louisiana is ranked among the highest in the nation for infant deaths, according to the 2018 America’s Health Rankings Health of Women and Children Report. These statistics are even more alarming among younger mothers and minorities. For example, teen moms experience almost ten infant deaths per 1,000, and the infant mortality rate among African-Americans is more than 10 deaths per 1,000.
Infant deaths aren’t always preventable – and disparities in medical care among minority groups have historically played a major role in infant mortality – however, there are things new moms and we as a community can do to reduce their occurrence. November is Prematurity Awareness Month – an opportune reminder to review practices that can improve outcomes for babies.
We know, for instance, that prematurity and low birthweight are leading causes of infant deaths. Babies born before 37 weeks’ gestation are more likely to have short- and long-term health issues, including heart problems and difficulty breathing, as well as vision, hearing and developmental problems, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG).
This is why it is critical for us to support expectant mothers, particularly teens and minority women who have disproportionately been affected by infant mortality, in taking control of their pregnancies – and practicing healthier behaviors that will improve outcomes for their babies. There are a number of things expectant mothers can do to curtail some of the risks, including:
Paying attention to preconception health. Quitting smoking, treating chronic conditions and reaching a healthy weight before getting pregnant can increase a woman’s chances of a healthy pregnancy. If you’re planning to have a baby, talk to your doctor about your current medical history, and discuss whether there’s anything you can do to improve your health before conception.
Seeking prenatal care. If you are pregnant or think you might be, call your doctor to schedule a visit. Then keep up with your recommended prenatal visits, even if you’re feeling well. According to womenshealth.gov, babies of mothers who forego prenatal care are three-times more likely to be low in birthweight and five-times more likely to die than those whose mothers get care.
Being proactive about your health. Having a healthy diet, staying active, getting enough rest and limiting stress as much as possible are vital to a healthy pregnancy. Additionally, being vocal about your medical care is especially important. Do not be afraid to ask questions or raise concerns about your level of care or treatment with your care provider.
Equally as important, there are things new moms can do once baby arrives to promote good health and reduce the chances of infant death. They include:
Creating a safe sleeping environment. Parents can reduce the chances of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) and suffocation by creating safe sleep areas for their babies, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For example, infants who sleep on couches, in their parents’ bed, or on their stomach are more likely to die from an unexpected, sudden cause. When it comes to safe sleep for infants, parents should always follow the ABCs: babies should be placed alone, on their back and in a crib.
Breastfeeding. According to the World Health Organization, breastmilk promotes sensory and cognitive development and protects against infectious and chronic illnesses. Exclusive breastfeeding reduces infant deaths due to common childhood illnesses like pneumonia and diarrhea, and helps promote a quicker recovery when babies are sick.
Newborn screening and regular doctor visits. Screenings for newborns detect treatable disorders, allowing treatment to begin often before symptoms or permanent health issues occur, reports the National Institutes for Health. Newborn screening not only saves lives but can improve the health and quality of life for children and their families. Also, regular well-child doctor visits for babies can reduce the chance of death.
Community-based and online resources can help expectant mothers and families. Among them is Baby Blocks, an online program that rewards pregnant women and new parents for staying on top of their prenatal and well-baby care. Also, UnitedHealthcare Community Plan partners with local health departments and health centers to host community resource fairs that connect expectant mothers to social services and health education. More resources are available at ChildbirthConnection.org and MarchofDimes.org.
Having a healthy lifestyle is always important, yet it’s especially critical during pregnancy. It’s my hope that all expectant mothers in Louisiana and nationwide understand what they can do to increase their chances of having a healthy baby.