We Know Black Parents Are at the Most Risk When Giving Birth—Here's How to Protect Yourself

Considering statistics about the dangers that Black birthing people face when giving birth, they have every reason to be anxious about it—here's what they can do.

Young pregnant woman reading notes while doing some online research on a laptop on her sofa at home
Photo: Ivan Gener/Stocksy

According to the world, when you're Black you already know "what to expect when you're expecting"—fear about a failing healthcare system. For Black pregnant people, there are everyday duties—like naming and making space for baby— but there are also silent concerns about structural and medical racism. Every step of the way, glaring statistics around the risk of death and long-term injury for Black birthing people and babies are a painful reminder of the legacy of racism.

It's always a good time to discuss Black wellness—especially reproductive health and solutions that better aid Black birthing people and their families.

Angela D. Aina, Co-Founding Executive Director at Black Mamas Matter Alliance and Baby Dove Strategic Advisor, says data and shared lived experiences not only show that Black birthing people face disparities in care, but they also deal with the emotional weight of that information. "We hear from birthing people across the country that despite pregnancy being an exciting time for them, they are also fearful, given the existing statistics, shared stories, and awareness of maternal morbidity in the U.S," says Aina.

Read on for suggestions to protect yourself and more information on Black Maternal Health Week.

Get a Doula

The painful statistic that Black birthing people are three to four times more likely to die during pregnancy and even more likely to experience morbidity can leave them feeling suffocated. But as society has grown too comfortable discussing Black death and disparity during pregnancy, many people are seeking solutions for what to do while processing the understandable nerves, concern, and overwhelm that come with giving birth in the U. S.

There's been considerable conversation about doulas and the role they play in improving outcomes and reducing the overwhelm of the birthing process. Aina says doulas, like midwives and OB/GYNs, are essential aspects of the team of providers.

Doulas help birthing people and their families with a plan that meets them where they are, she says. "They are often members of the communities they serve and might be physically and culturally accessible in ways that other providers are not." Community-based doulas can help Black birthing people feel safer and reduce the need to assimilate or code-switch during the care. This can reduce stress, and remind people their culture and customs matter. All of this can make the birthing process, and transition afterwards, birth easier.

Many doulas provide postpartum care. Having a doula after during the postpartum process means there's someone to help you watch for the signs and help you manage the transition more smoothly. Having support will also reduce the chance of mental health concerns like postpartum depression and anxiety.

National partnerships like Baby Dove's Black Birth Equity Fund: Action for Black Maternal Health and local grassroots efforts, The Black Doula Project, which supports people giving birth in D.C. or Maryland, and Frontline Doulas in Los Angeles, California provide funding assistance.

Familiarize Yourself with the Birth Bill of Rights

Aina says better understanding, respect, and affirmation for Black birthing individuals and their experiences is significant to advancing their rights and health outcomes. It's important to increase the chance that the lived experiences of Black birthing people are honored by both medical professionals and loved ones.Using frameworks, like the Birth Bill of Rights, which help provide a baseline of care, is a good way to do this.

"One of our organizational partners, The Southern Birth Justice Network drafted the Birth Justice Bill of Rights as a framework for Black birthing persons and others to know their rights and advocate for respectful health care," she says.

Aina highlights other efforts like the National Association to Advance Black Birth's Black Birthing Bill of Rights, which she says is also a resource for every Black person that engages in maternity care. These resources help Black birthing people replace fear with information and confidence, but the impact is much broader. "These care bills of rights can serve as a resource for government programs, hospitals, maternity providers, and others as they transform their policies, procedures, and practices to center the needs of Black birthing people," says Aina.

Seek Out Advocacy Organizations

BMMA has many resources—toolkits, literature, and archived webinars—that support Black pregnant people and their loved ones at this important stage.

The Black Maternal Health Week Campaign is observed annually from April 11-17 and was recently acknowledged by the White House. The Campaign takes place every year during National Minority Health Month, and coincides with the International Day for Maternal Health and Rights on April 11th, says Aina. "We launched BMHW in 2017 in an effort to shift the narrative around maternal health in ways that center Black joy, and Black women-led efforts to advance innovative, holistic maternity care solutions at the local and national levels."

Around the country, there are many Black-led advocacy organizations that are working to shift the conversation and end the disparities among Black people during perinatal care. "We are also intentional about amplifying our partners —which includes community-based perinatal and reproductive health providers—who are leading Black maternal equity work in their local communities," says Aina. She encourages everyone to familiarize themselves with BMMA's partners, which include the Black Women's Health Imperative, Ancient Song Doula Services, and other Black-led efforts.

Enjoy Your Pregnancy

Giving birth while Black is frequently discussed from a place of disparity. Highlighting these risks matters and we need to be knowledgeable about what's at stake. "This year is the fifth anniversary of Black Maternal Health Week – and just last year, in April 2021, the week was officially recognized by the White House," Aina says. "This week for us is foundational in increasing awareness, activism, and expanding our community as it pertains to Black maternal health in the U.S, discussing policy, research, and solutions of care from the perspectives of Black birthing individuals, communities, and leaders, and provides a platform for people from across the world to engage."

But Black Maternal Health Week should also be a reminder to enjoy your pregnancy and celebrate your growing family. Being happy and joyful isn't just good for mood; it's good for overall health. Having fun and interacting with loved ones is more than companionship; it's a chance to lower stress by increasing while leaning into joy. Black pregnant people should feel welcome to lean into all the milestones that others discuss of pregnancy—pregnancy photoshoots, babymoons, and having a good time doing all the doctor-approved activities they enjoyed before being pregnant.

Be mindful of the signs

Aina says non-birthing families and community members who are concerned for the safety of Black people giving birth can better advocate on their behalf by educating themselves on the risks and the rights of birthing people. But advocating for pregnant people doesn't end at birth.

Perinatal deaths happen for many reasons and can happen at any point during pregnancy up until one year after delivery. The Centers for Disease Control says around 31 percent of perinatal deaths happen during pregnancy, 36 percent happen either during delivery or the first week after birth, and the rest happen in the first year after delivery. Overall health before and during pregnancy is important—34 percent of perinatal deaths were caused by heart disease or stroke. Infection and severe bleeding were also leading causes of perinatal death.

This makes it really important that pregnant people, their loved ones, and their care network are all aware of the signs there is a complication. The March of Dimes has a list of concerning symptoms. High fever, breast/chest or belly pain, and discharge can all be signs of infection. Other signs, like severe headaches, dizziness, blurred vision, or sudden weight gain or swelling in the legs, hands, or face could point towards preeclampsia. Conditions like blood clots, or deep vein thrombosis (dvt), involve pain or swelling in the legs, especially the calves. And lastly, postpartum hemorrhage can be visible with heavier than normal long term bleeding.

Get involved with Black Maternal Health Week.

Black Maternal Health Week is a week-long celebration that focuses on many things, including highlighting some of the community-based providers who are spearheading efforts to change the disparities that Black people who give birth face. Each year in April, . Black Mamas Matter Alliances says that the campaign and activities for Black Maternal Health Week serve to amplify the voices of Black Birthing Bodies and center the values and traditions of the reproductive and birth justice movements. Activities during BMHW are rooted in human rights, reproductive justice, and birth justice frameworks.

It is a time to learn information about the policies, movements and thought leaders that affect Black perinatal health. But it is also a useful opportunity to engage online and make new connections with people who are navigating different stages of the pregnancy and postpartum process. Many pregnant people may find that having access to a community that understands their birthing experience and context makes the process easier to manage.

The events associated with Black Maternal Health week are open to all, regardless of race or pregnancy status. That means anyone can interact and interact with the festivities. Advocates, concerned community members, and people from various social backgrounds can learn something new by following their annual #bmhw hashtag and participating in the virtual discussion.

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