Black infants are dying at higher rates than white infants in California. What can be done?

Published on
March 21, 2018

It’s been described by some as a public health emergency.

Black infants in California and across the nation are dying at higher rates than infants of other races.

In 2014, the most recent state data available, there were 9.2 deaths among every 1,000 black babies that were born in Los Angeles County. To compare, there were 3 deaths among every 1,000 white infants in the county for that year.

In San Bernardino County in 2014, there were 14 deaths for every 1,000 black infants born, and 5.9 deaths for every 1,000 white babies born.

And in Riverside County in 2014, there were 8.6 deaths among every 1,000 black infants born. The rate for white infants was 4.2.

The disparity has been well documented over the years, and researchers and public health advocates have found different theories and causes to explain these statistics.

As part of the 2018 California Fellowship, I plan to write a series of stories to run in news sites across the Southern California News Group, such as The Press-Enterprise in Riverside, The Los Angeles Daily News, and The San Bernardino Sun.

I will explore risk factors and causes behind the high black infant death rate across Southern California, including looking at the science behind a recent popular theory that high cortisol levels related to racism can harm black babies. I will also explore how the state, counties and communities are responding to this disparity.

The series will also include an analysis of county reports detailing the circumstances surrounding infant deaths in Southern California. County child death review teams have revealed that sudden infant death syndrome, low birthweight, and violence are among reasons why infants are dying.

And, I will delve into the science behind the mostly recent theory that racism-related stress can affect newborns.

Tyan Parker Dominguez, a clinical associate professor at the University of Southern California, has researched this theory.

In a 2013 report, Dominguez and six other authors explored the role that racism has on blood pressure changes during pregnancy. The study considered cardiovascular functioning as an important link between racism and birthweight.

Also, I will look into how state-funded Black Infant Health programs — active in Los Angeles, Riverside, and San Bernardino counties — are addressing the issue.

Communities are also responding to this disparity in their own way. Child birth professionals are forming groups across Southern California to train doulas of color. Birth justice is a term they often use to push back against negative birth experiences among women of color. Doulas, who serve as childbirth coaches, can provide physical and emotional support to mothers before and after giving birth.These groups are more common in Northern California but are forming across the Inland Empire and Los Angeles County.

Brenda Montaño is a doula who in October 2017 began holding meetings for birth workers of color in the Inland Empire. She focuses on newborn care.

“I want to engage with birthing people who need it the most,” she said.

[Photo: Terry Pierson/The Press-Enterprise]