Among the world’s developed countries, the United States holds the unwanted distinction of being a leader in maternal and infant deaths. In an attempt to turn the tide, the federal government last month announced a new $350 million investment.
Through a series of grants, the government will target in particular the stubborn racial inequity that has long left non-white mothers and babies with higher-than-average mortality rates.
Maternal, Infant and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program
Most of the funding, $342 million, will go to expand the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program. As the name implies, the program supports home medical visits to expectant moms and those with young children.
The infant and maternal health experts visit primarily low-income mothers to provide guidance on pregnancy health and parenting skills. They also bring essential baby care supplies like diapers and can help families secure food, link them to federal nutrition programs, and locate stable or more suitable housing, among other services.
Healthy Start Initiatives
Federal funding is also going to the Healthy Start Initiative, which operates in communities where the infant death rate is 1.5 times higher than the national average.
Some of the funds will support increased use of doulas, who provide physical and emotional support to expectant moms and their partners through pregnancy and childbirth. Research shows that doulas support better health outcomes and can reduce cesarean and preterm births.
A portion of the Healthy Start funding will augment existing support to 10 states that participate in the State Systems Developmental Initiative. The program is focused on collecting and reporting timely, high quality maternal health data, which has long been a challenge.
Persistent Infant and Maternal Mortality
Despite progress in recent years, the United States continues to trail other wealthy countries on measures of infant health.
The United States’ infant death rate is 71% higher than average, according to a 2017 study of 12 developed countries. And within the United States, mortality rates among babies born to non-Hispanic Black, Native American and Alaska Native mothers remain disproportionately high compared to babies born to white mothers.
A similarly discouraging trend persists with maternal mortality, with the United States trailing other wealthy countries in preventing deaths from pregnancy or childbirth. The maternal death rate among non-Hispanic Black women was more than twice as high as that of non-Hispanic white women, according to recent data from the National Center for Health Statistics.
These statistics and the factors that contribute to them are well known. “We know that many mothers and their children do not receive the care they need to stay healthy throughout their lives,” said Acting HRSA Administrator Diane Espinosa, in announcing the new federal awards. “These programs will allow us to better tackle the root causes of these challenges,” she added.
Digging deep to address infant and maternal mortality is a must if the United States wants to reverse its current trend – and do right by mothers and infants of all races and classes.