Reducing infant deaths
Singing “Nothing is lost on the breath of God” in church on a recent Sunday, my mind called up the face and tiny body of the stillborn child I blessed most recently. I had read about a church that held a memorial service including that hymn after the pastor had a miscarriage. The song is now connected for me with the pregnancy loss I’ve seen in my work as a hospital chaplain.
In caring for parents after miscarriage, stillbirth and the death of an infant, I have witnessed a deep pain and sadness distinct from other expressions of grief I have seen. These losses are profound in any circumstances.
Yet periodically I wonder why there is so much more infant and pregnancy loss in the hospitals where I have worked as a chaplain, which serve largely low-income people of color.
During my first internship as a chaplain, I said a pastoral blessing over each of several stillborn children as I cared for their families. It was an unforgettable introduction to the reality that more babies die in the U.S. before reaching their first birthday than in many other developed nations worldwide. In some areas it was much higher. (The deaths of children who don’t survive childbirth are sometimes recorded differently from infant deaths, but causes may be related.)
According to 2010 statistics, the U.S. infant mortality rate is 6.1 per 1,000 live births. In the southern part of Chicago and nearby suburbs, including the area where I work as a chaplain now, it’s 10.8, according to the most recent available data, from 2008.
Recent research from three U.S. professors—including one from the University of Chicago, located in that same area—compared and contrasted the U.S. infant mortality rate with those of other wealthy countries, specifically Austria and Finland. They found that U.S. children often have access to “technology-intensive medical care provided shortly after birth” in hospitals. There is also a difference in reporting on deaths after premature births. “Extremely preterm births recorded in some places may be considered miscarriage or stillbirth in other countries,” and those deaths before viability account for some of the difference.
But the gap in the mortality rate is apparent after children go home. Knowing infant mortality “varies strongly across racial and education groups,” the authors looked at socioeconomic status. “We show that infants born to white, college-educated, married women in the U.S. have mortality rates that are essentially indistinguishable from a similar advantaged demographic in Austria and Finland.”
Christopher Ingraham of The Washington Post commented on the professors’ paper. “To put it bluntly, babies born to poor moms in the U.S. are significantly more likely to die in their first year than babies born to wealthier moms,” he wrote. “Research like this drives home the notion that economic debates in this country—about inequality, poverty, health care—aren’t just policy abstractions. There are real lives at stake.”
As I remember some of those lives, I pray for policymakers to take seriously research that points to a way to reduce infant deaths through programs that improve the standard of living for their families. And I pray for our church communities to share our resources among us and with our neighbors as there is need. At the hospital where I work, we give newborn care packages with clothing, blankets, books and more, many of the items handmade by volunteers. In new parents I see hope for the future of their children, a hope we can all help to sustain.
Celeste Kennel-Shank is a hospital chaplain, editor and community gardener in Chicago.