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City Leaders Contend Strong Baby Program Helps Reduce Infant Deaths in Milwaukee

Milwaukee’s infant mortality rate continues to be a problem. While the city has brought the numbers down, several more babies have died in just the past few weeks. On Tuesday, community members gathered to discuss how to move forward. 

They encouraged more people to participate in one program in particular, the Strong Baby Sanctuary Initiative.

About 100 community leaders attended a luncheon at Columbia/St. Mary’s hospital to celebrate the Strong Baby Sanctuary program. It’s grown in the past couple years from ten participating churches to 23 throughout the city. Mayor Tom Barrett says the congregations have been working to provide whatever struggling young families need, including rides to doctor appointments to baby clothing and diapers.

“Sometimes it’s something as easy as preparing a meal. If you think of harried mothers and harried fathers, somebody who prepares a spaghetti dinner for your family, that can be a lifesaver so that you have an hour and a half to shop or to clean the house, those are the types of things we’re talking about,” Barrett says.

Barrett says there are several causes of infant deaths, the top two being sleep-related fatalities and complications from premature births. He says while Milwaukee’s numbers have been steadily declining, they are still too high. They peaked in 2006 at 140 infant deaths to an annual average now of about 100.

“We’ve seen a 24 percent decrease in the number of infant mortalities, but we still see a very stubborn challenge, particularly in the African American community. In the poorest parts of the city, we still see an infant mortality rate that is probably three times as high as it is in other parts of the community,” Barrett says.

Barrett believes the Strong Baby program has helped bring down the numbers, and he calls on more congregations to take part. One that plans to is Bethel Christian Methodist Episcopal. Willie F. Dockery is a minister at the church. He believes many families would benefit.

“We have a food pantry that we have at our church and we serve about 100 families a month. I see a lot of evidence of teenage pregnancy and lack of resources so I do anticipate there being a lot of individuals who would visit our site,” Dockery says.

One congregation that has served as a sanctuary since 2015 is Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church. Member Marcella Williams says her church has been working with a handful of families each year. She says it pays special attention to pregnant women who need pre-natal care.

“Get them to the services that they need so that babies are strong, you’ve got to start that before birth. You have to start it at conception, you’ve got to take care of your body and that’s something that a lot of people lack,” Williams says.

Williams says there are a few things people could do to help reduce the number of infant deaths in Milwaukee. She’d like to see more people check-in with expectant moms to make sure they are as healthy as possible. Williams also called on people to do more volunteering to assist all sorts of families in crisis.

Marti was a reporter with WUWM from 1999 to 2021.
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