Milwaukee's Mortality Rate For Black Babies Is High. Why, And What's Being Done About It?

May 21, 2019

So for a lot of families, there’s this thing that happens when they find out they’re expecting a baby. Once they get past the Is this really happening? stage and all the excitement that can come with knowing you’re growing a life, in can set the worry.

Am I eating the right foods? Am I getting enough sleep? Is this safe for the baby? Is my baby moving enough? How will…. What if… and on, and on.

For me, this was personal. 2018 was a monumental year for my family.

My husband and I welcomed our daughter.

During pregnancy, we went to every last doctor’s appointment. And, we were given literature about what was happening in each trimester.

After one appointment, I was reading the information when something jumped out at me and my heart sank into my stomach.

The mere fact that I am African American put me at risk for a less than optimal birth outcome.

LaToya Dennis received this list of risk factors that can contribute to premature birth while she was pregnant.
Credit Michelle Maternowski

Nothing else mattered. Not our levels of education, not our career choices, not what our home life is like.

Thankfully, our daughter, who is now one year old, is healthy and happy.

However, black babies in Wisconsin are nearly three times more likely to die than white babies. That’s according to the Centers for Disease Control.

But what’s worse, the infant mortality rate — the rate at which babies die before age one — for black babies in Wisconsin is the highest in the country.

From State Variations in Infant Mortality by Race and Hispanic Origin of Moth, 2013-2015.
Credit U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics
Why Is The Infant Mortality Rate For Black Babies In Wisconsin So High?

"Fifty-six percent of our infant mortality is connected in some way to premature birth," Becky Rowland explains. She is the interim director of family and community health with the Milwaukee Health Department.

A baby is premature if born before reaching 37 weeks.

“And we know that when we have the pervasive, ongoing stress of being a person of color in our country that it impacts our birth outcomes,” she continues.

READ: Meet Wisconsin's Only Black Midwife

Rowland says in Milwaukee, and communities across the country, society has found it difficult to address the biggest contributor to premature births.

“We talk about safe sleep. We talk about getting babies on their back, but we know this is connected to stress,” she says.

What we are seeing in Milwaukee in terms of the black infant mortality rate, Rowland says, is one of the consequences of such a segregated society. “Which has a lasting impact on people’s physical, mental, emotional health," she says.

In Milwaukee, infant mortality data is broken down by zip code.

Fetal Infant Mortality Review Reporter, Status Report on 2012-2015 Stillbirths and Infant Deaths.
Credit City of Milwaukee Health Department

In 2017, 53206 had the highest infant mortality rate—29.1 percent.

Rowland says 2017 was an abysmal year for Milwaukee’s infant mortality rate—120 babies died before their first birthday.

When broken down by race, African-American babies died at a rate of 18.1 per 1,000 live births compared to white babies at 3.6 deaths per 1,000 live births.

From Fetal Infant Mortality Review Reporter, Status Report on 2012-2015 Stillbirths and Infant Deaths.
Credit City of Milwaukee Health Department

But she points out that because health officials focus on trends, they don’t jump to judgment based upon one year of data.

Rowland says that while she’s not a black woman, the fact that so many black babies are dying is heartbreaking.

She says she can’t help but wonder that if she were black if her story would be different. “I reflect a lot on my own birth outcomes. I have a six year old and a four year old and I had a pretty complicated birth. And I wonder if I was a woman of color if my baby would have survived. And that’s messed up.”

Next: How Doulas And Midwives Of Color Are Working To Change The Narrative For Black Families

Rowland says Milwaukee is looking to move the needle on this issue, which is why the city is investing in hiring four doulas and a doula manager.

READ: How Doulas Of Color Are Impacting Birth Outcomes For Women Of Color In Milwaukee

Doulas have no medical training, but are there to support families before pregnancy, during labor and after the birth.

The program, when it begins, will be open to a limited number of black women across the city.

Editor’s note: This is the first part in our series about Milwaukee’s high infant mortality rate for black babies. Next we learn more about the role doulas of color could play in helping to improve birth outcomes.