As an African American Lamaze Certified Childbirth Educator, I have observed over my 18 years of teaching that childbirth education class participants are less likely to be women of color. My desire for more women of color to attend childbirth education classes is rooted deeper than just their presence in a classroom – it is rooted in my desire for more women of color to understand the disparities that exist in maternal and birth outcomes.
In a recent Science and Sensibility blog post by Christine Morton on maternal health disparities, she reviewed the work of several well-known public health researchers – Dr. Eugene Declercq, Dr. Mary Barger and Dr. Judith Weiss. Their findings point to the fact that African American women have higher rates of cesarean births at nearly every age group and across every level of education.
In addition, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports that one of every five non-Hispanic,black births are pre-term, African American mothers experience an infant mortality rate twice that of non-Hispanic, white mothers, and breastfeeding rates among African American mothers are 16 percent lower than white mothers.
Given the disparities that exist in maternal and birth outcomes for women of color, I think April as Minority Health Awareness Month is a great opportunity to talk about a few other factors that minority moms or mothers-to-be can control or influence. It’s a hard reality that mothers face real challenges in getting the childbirth care they want and deserve. Even though medical evidence may tell us certain practices are good for mothers and babies, the “system” is not always geared to deliver that care. Health care providers are rushed, spread thin, or incentivized for practices that are not most beneficial to the mother.
Let’s go back to the fact that African American women have higher rates of cesarean births than non-Hispanic,white women. Is it because African American women are sicker and need to have a cesarean birth? Researchers report that this is untrue. They conclude that higher rates of cesarean births among African American women are a result of a shift in obstetric practices to focus more heavily on use of childbirth interventions. And, when we bring in an induction to the equation, there is a correlation between the increased rates of induction to the increased rates of cesarean births!
Research shows that babies pay a steep price for these early births caused by inductions or a failed induction, which led to a cesarean. Babies have greater difficulties breathing, breastfeeding, and maintaining their temperature, which usually means being separated from moms and spending time in the Intensive Care Unit. While an increasing number of hospitals and health care professionals are shying away from unnecessary cesarean birth and induction, it’s one of many care practices that just aren’t supported by good medical evidence.
So how can women of color push for better care?
- Become an active partner with your care provider. While doctors or midwives have professional knowledge and skills, they may not know everything about your personal background and preferences. Finding a provider who will also act as your partner can help you push for the care that’s best for you and your baby.
- Ask questions – lots of them! Labor and birth in particular can be unpredictable. That’s why it’s a smart idea to prepare a list of rolling questions throughout your pregnancy to help you determine if the right care is being recommended during labor, birth and after birth.
Do your research. Understand your available care options before, during and after labor at the hospital or birth center. If you know that during labor you’d like the ability to walk around, eat and drink – choose a birth facility that will be more aligned with your birth preferences or wishes.
Participate in a childbirth education class. Taking a Lamaze class will help you understand maternity care best practices and be better prepared to navigate your labor and birth. A childbirth educator will help you identify the right questions to ask when making decisions about your care.
I encourage all women – particularly African American women – to learn more about getting the right care in pregnancy and childbirth by attending a childbirth education class. Skipping out on childbirth education is a lost opportunity to stack the deck in your favor and become a well-informed consumer of evidence-based practices! As a consumer, it is your right to be a partner in your health care decisions.
Tara Owens Shuler, MEd, LCCE, FACCE is the president of Lamaze International. She has practiced as a childbirth educator since 1995. In 2005, she became the Director of the Duke AHEC Lamaze Childbirth Educator Program. In addition to training individuals to become childbirth educators and preparing expectant women and their partners for a safe and healthy birth experience, Tara provides labor support services. Along with coordinating the Lamaze program in the Duke AHEC office, Tara works with her statewide AHEC partners in developing continuing education programs and/or resources for healthcare providers in North Carolina and assists with the Duke AHEC PATHWAYS Health Careers program for K-12 students. When not working, Tara and her husband enjoy playing with their dog, Gramps, and traveling.
Visit Lamaze International for great resources to help mothers and mothers-to-be learn their options.