Everyone knows that women are under tremendous stress. We also know that stress makes us sick. But new research points to a particular stress of everyday life as a predator of its most defenseless souls – pre-term infants born too soon and too small to have an equal fighting chance. The science suggests that cumulative stress endured by their mothers is visited upon these tiny victims even before they leave the womb.
Consider the case of Kim Anderson, a successful Atlanta executive and lawyer. She maintained a healthy lifestyle. From eating right to exercising regularly, Kim clung to the widespread belief that behavior can ensure positive health outcomes. She enjoyed access to excellent doctors and while pregnant with her first child made sure to receive proper prenatal care. Despite all of this, her daughter Danielle was born 10 weeks before her due date, under three pounds and easily fitting into the palm of her hand.
All the evidence shows pre-term babies wage an uphill battle reaching their first birthday. If they do, they are at higher risks of developmental problems, learning disabilities, immune deficiencies and cardio vascular disease.
Kim’s experience reflects the alarming statistics confronting African-American women. They give birth to pre-term babies at twice the rate of other mothers. While education is the most important factor among positive health outcomes, the gap actually widens as the income and socioeconomic status of African-American women increase. A college educated African-American woman is more likely to deliver a premature baby than a white woman who dropped out of high school. This startling circumstance prompted researchers to look beyond individual behaviors. The trail also took them past genetic factors and forced them to raise this question: What is it about being a black woman in America that is hazardous to your child bearing health?
Neonatologist who specialize in the care of infants born too early or dangerously underweight, have conducted extensive research on this topic. Their findings point to the culprit: chronic stress of racism – not during pregnancy – but over the course of a woman’s life.
The corrosive impact of stress on the lives and health of children and their mothers is explored in the new PBS documentary series, Unnatural Causes: Is Inequality Making Us Sick? which has been airing this Spring on PBS affiliates across the country. A segment in the series, When the Bough Breaks, knits together stunning new research, expert analysis and case studies like the Kim Anderson story.