Your baby’s weight at birth is one of the key signs that the baby is healthy. So, when the baby has a low birth weight, which means they weigh less than 5.5 pounds at birth, they could be at risk for several health issues.
As newborns, they may have problems like difficulty breathing, heart problems, or bleeding in the brain. Later in life, they have a higher than normal risk of developing diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, or becoming obese.
Your baby’s weight and racism might not seem like topics that belong in the same sentence. But they’re more related than you might think. Let’s dive into why being a Black woman makes you more at risk to have a low birth weight baby.
Racism—Starting In The Womb
It’s not being Black and female that increases the risk of having a low-birth weight baby. It’s the connection between being Black and being discriminated against that increases the risk.
Unlike other disparities, education doesn’t even matter. Babies born to college-educated Black women are still more likely to have a lower birth weight than babies born to white women who dropped out high school.
Racism Causes Stress
Many things can cause stress, from looking for a job to losing a loved one. And racism is right up there with the rest. Many Black women don’t even realize they are facing the stress of racism because it’s become so normal.
There are a few reasons why racism can make you stressed:
- It’s rude. That might not sound very scientific, but—it’s true. When someone says or does something racist, it’s demeaning and negative. That can take a major toll on your psyche and health. Even your medical team might treat you differently—usually, without intending to—which can lead to subpar treatment during pregnancy.
- Others’ racist attitudes can make it more difficult for Black women to find work, get housing, or receive good medical care. All of these factors impact the baby’s health and your health during pregnancy.
And Stress Affects My Baby’s Weight, How?
Everyone’s body produces cortisol (a.k.a. the “stress hormone”). During a normal pregnancy, your cortisol level can increase by 2 to 4 times. However, stress can make your body release more cortisol, and that’s where things get messy. Too much cortisol can reduce blood flow to the fetus, and that can restrict your baby’s growth.
Chronic stress can also weaken your immune system. This makes it harder for your body to fight infections, including infections in the uterus. This can lead to premature birth (a baby born before 37 weeks). And premature birth causes low birth weight in two-thirds of underweight newborns.
The bottom line: Racism is a powerful stressor that causes your body to release the same hormones it would in any other stressful situation. If you’re constantly facing discrimination, that stress can keep on building up and affect your baby’s birth weight.
Racism Can Also Affect You And Your Baby Like This …
Stress (like the stress caused by racism) can affect your behavior, which can, in turn, lead to low birth weight.
When people are stressed, they are more likely to turn to cigarettes, alcohol, and drugs. All of these activities can slow the baby’s growth in the womb, causing low birth weight.
- It’s estimated that smoking during pregnancy accounts for 20 to 30% of babies born with a low birth weight, and up to 14% of premature births.
- Secondhand smoke can increase a baby’s risk of low birth weight by as much as 20%.
- There is no safe time or way to drink. Depending on your drinking habits, you can give your baby a 16% increased risk of low birth weight—as early as the second half of your first trimester.
… And Like This
You’ve heard the saying, “strong, independent Black woman.” And power to you if you are one.
But did you know that being strong and independent can actually be a major stressor if you’re Black?
White women who become strong and independent by climbing their way up the socioeconomic ladder have improved health outcomes. Black women? Not so much.
One of the reasons has been referred to as “weathering,” a term coined by Arline Geronimus, a professor at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. She explains that Black women have dealt with racism for such a long time that they feel like they’ve been weathered down.
Black women have put up with a lot of disadvantages. They’re more likely than white women to be single householders, raising an entire family. They’re also more likely to be unemployed, live in poverty, and lack access to health care.
Over time, their bodies just can’t take it anymore. They become more stressed, less healthy, and more likely to have babies born with health problems, like low birth weight.
Recap: White women become strong, independent, and healthy. Black women become strong, independent, and not quite so healthy.
That Boiling Blood
There’s something else that Black women deal with that can cause low birth weight: high blood pressure.
High blood pressure (hypertension) is when the force of blood flowing through blood vessels is consistently too high. It can increase your risk for heart attack and stroke.
But it doesn’t just affect you. High blood pressure can mean your developing baby doesn’t get enough oxygen or nutrients. This can cause him to have slow growth and be born underweight.
You can get high blood pressure for a whole slew of reasons. One is that the stress we just talked about can increase your appetite. And if you’re already having pregnancy cravings, it can be very easy to reach for the foods you know you shouldn’t eat.
Once in awhile? Not a big deal. But if you overdo the pizza and ice cream, you run the risk of developing high blood pressure, which is another risk factor for low birth weight.
Black women may have high blood pressure more than white women. However, it’s also something that all sisters—Black, white, Asian, Hispanic—need to worry about when pregnant.
Stress, lack of exercise, poor sleep, and unhealthy eating can all lead to high blood pressure. And any woman, no matter the color of her skin, may be more likely to have all of these risk factors while pregnant.
There’s Something You Can Do About It
Remember: You may not be able to single-handedly control racism in the U.S. But you can control how you cope with the stress:
- Refuse to turn to negative coping mechanisms—no smoking, no drinking, no drugs.
- Surround yourself with supportive girlfriends and drama-free loved ones, at least until the baby is born.
- Remind yourself that you’re loved, worth taking care of, and can have a great future.
- Eat a healthy diet. Yes, you’re pregnant, but you still shouldn’t overeat.
- Work out. Thirty minutes of mild to moderate exercise daily (e.g., brisk walking, swimming) should do the trick.
- Meditate or join a prenatal yoga class.
- Address the cause of stress. If your boss is a jerk, if you’re partner is pissing you off, if your landlord is a hot mess, it may be time to have a come-to-Jesus meeting with anyone who is causing you stress, whether it’s related to racism or not.
- Get enough sleep. Adults need about 7 to 9 hours per night, and pregnant women usually need even more than that. Figure out how you can add some extra sleep time to your day.
If you are pregnant, hoping to one day become pregnant, or know someone who is pregnant, send this information to them. Have a conversation with the medical team during prenatal care about what you can do make sure your baby is born at a healthy weight.