In 2009, infant mortality in Baltimore hit its highest point in a decade. More than 120 infants died before reaching age one, with African-American babies dying at a rate twice the national average, 14 deaths per 1000 live births.
In 2007, the rate of infant death in Baltimore was higher than in developing nations such as Grenada and Tonga. What made the statistical data even more upsetting to health officials was that the causes of infant deaths were preventable. The leading causes of infant deaths from 2005-2007 in Baltimore were pre-term birth, low birth weight, and unexplained death related to unsafe sleeping arrangements, according to a study called “The Strategy to Improve Birth Outcomes in Baltimore City” from the Baltimore City Health Department (BCHD).
Maryland, one of the wealthiest states in the U.S., is fighting a conflict in a crib.
Following her abrupt election as the new mayor of Baltimore, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake developed several initiatives for making Baltimore a “cleaner and healthier city.” B’More for Healthy Babies is a long-term program based in the Baltimore communities Patterson Park North and East, Upton/Druid Heights, and Greenmount East, that aims to reduce the city’s infant mortality rate.
Though B’More for Healthy Babies is the first initiative Baltimore has seen to focus on curbing infant mortality, difficulty getting information to those most affected, lack of funds for continuing programs to help end unhealthy practices before they begin, and the unwillingness of Baltimore citizens to address the issue of infant mortality have kept officials from fully determining if the initiative is making progress.
“Infant mortality has been a very stubborn issue for the city to address over the past two decades,” Director of the Mayor’s Office of Policy and Communications Ryan O’Doherty said. “The mayor’s thinking behind that initiative is the importance of investing in children, especially early on, and investing in good parenting … having parents understand the importance of how to take care of their children.”
Mothers and fathers starting to raise a family after the implementation of the new initiative are often changing the ways they thought were correct to keep their babies alive.
Some young mothers in Baltimore have already been impacted through efforts of the initiative. LaShawn Hughes, 19, of Druid Heights, was made to watch B’More for Healthy Babies’ “Baby Basics” video before she was allowed to leave the hospital with her daughter, Cayden, now one years old.
“Some young mothers probably don’t know what to do,” Hughes said. “Young mothers don’t always pay attention. There has to be a certain way to get the message across. There could’ve been another way they [initiative workers] went about it.”
Strong ties to family-given information make mothers who already have infants less likely to follow the messages the initiative is trying to convey.
“Everybody wants to raise their kids in their own way,” Elaine Mundew, who has three children ages one, two and six, said.
Mundew, who learned about raising children from her mother, said she believes having her babies sleep in a crib is more dangerous than having them sleep in bed with their parents or in playpens. She had a cousin die as an infant while sleeping on his back in a crib.
Close to a year in practice, the program is currently transitioning out of phase one’s focus to emphasize “safe and healthy pregnancies,” specifically safe sleep practices for infants. Assistant Commissioner of Maternal and Infant Care for BCHD Rebecca Dineen hopes the turnover will start this summer.
The initiative has made visible progress, Gena O’Keefe, director of healthy community initiatives for the Family League of Baltimore City, said. But B’More for Healthy Babies has yet to release documentation or a report of the initiative’s progress to back up her statement.
Phase one of the initiative first utilized the slogan “ABC: Alone. Back. Crib.” to educate mothers on safe sleep techniques for infants: alone, on the baby’s back, and in a crib. Public service announcements viewable across Baltimore featured several interviews with mothers whose infants died due to unsafe sleep practices.
“The campaign personalizes the tragedy. It’s an actual person telling an actual story about how a mistake caused the death of their child. Not because they were careless, they didn’t know the dangers,” Press secretary for the Office of the Mayor Ian Brennan said. “It wasn’t the health commissioner standing there pointing a finger at you, it was someone from your community whose voice is a little more trustworthy.”
“Baby Basics” prenatal health curriculum literature and videos were seen by more than 20,000 people on Baltimore’s free cable channel, City Director of Healthy Community Initiatives Gena O’Keefe said.
“Exposure to these messages … it really makes a difference,” O’Keefe said. “[Now] we have to figure out how to keep this going rather than having this poop [die] out.”
Viewing “Baby Basics” was made mandatory by the eight birthing hospitals in Baltimore before mothers can return home with their newborns. Even those serving jury duty were made to watch the community-centered health education video. Women and men in focus groups run through the Baltimore City Health Department listened as a mother who lost her infant due to unsafe sleeping habits shared what she would have done differently to spare her child’s life.
“Women in the group started saying, ‘I’ll never do that,’ when they heard the mothers describe their stories,” Dineen said. “They changed their tune. It was as if the focus group became an intervention and not a research group.”
Focus groups are conducted with no more than 50 participating community members, and the results and steps to take action against infant mortality based on the communities needs are often not shared, as word does not spread when meetings to discuss such information will occur.
B’MORE FOR HEALTHY BABIES’ FIRST YEAR
In its first year, B’More for Healthy Babies focused on reducing unsafe sleep practices in Druid Heights. Difficulty getting information to those most affected, lack of funds for continuing programs to help end unhealthy practices before they begin, and the unwillingness of Baltimore citizens to address the issue of infant mortality have kept officials from fully determining if the initiative is making progress. >>Read More
DOES INFANT MORTALITY MATTER TO BALTIMORE?
Members of health agencies, such as the Family League of Baltimore, have been campaigning for safe sleep practices and visiting homes for almost a year as part of B’More for Healthy Babies. That’s not the culture of raising babies in Baltimore, one Druid Heights resident said. >>Read More
More than 40 percent of women in Baltimore are obese, Administrator for Maternal and Infant Care Program for the Baltimore City Health Department Stacey Tuck said. Obese women have more problems during pregnancy and delivery than those at healthy weights. In fall 2010, a pilot obesity reduction program was run in the Patterson Park North and East, Upton/Druid Heights, and Greenmount East communities. The B’More Fit for Healthy Babies program, an offshoot of the original initiative, created Weight Watchers support groups for women of child-bearing age to learn how to take care of themselves and their families in a way that fits into their lifestyle. >>Read More
KEEPING THE COMMUNITY INFORMED
B’More for Healthy Babies, the People’s Community Health Center, and Baltimore’s Healthy Start sponsored a town hall meeting to discuss the data accumulated by those focus groups
and how the community can access what they vocalized was needed to curb infant mortality rates. The meeting was cancelled after waiting an hour and a half with no one showing up to attend.
Director of the Mayor’s Office of Policy and Communications Ryan O’Doherty and Press secretary for the Office of the Mayor Ian Brennan discuss the importance of the B’More For Healthy Babies campaign and the effectiveness of the initiative’s first phase.
Infant mortality statistics for Baltimore City have remained stagnant for the past decade.
Maryland has 7.3 deaths per 1000 live births, ranking 19th worst in infant mortality rates in the United States.