Moving past “healthy mom, healthy baby” for Black mothers


In this article:

  • Mothers will always remember their experience giving birth to their children. Making sure this experience is positive and healthy – including spiritually, emotionally, mentally and physically – is critical, especially for Black mothers.

  • This Black Maternal Health Week, Providence is recognizing how the JUST Birth Network is working to improve health equity for birthing parents, regardless of race or ethnicity.

  • Read on to learn about the network and how it is changing the conversation around Black maternal health.

We have all heard the mantra of “healthy mom, healthy baby,” but walking out of the hospital healthy is the bare minimum. Especially when it comes to Black mothers, caregivers must consider the holistic spiritual, emotional, physical and mental health of families.

“Simply being safe and having a healthy pregnancy is a given,” says Sauleiha Akangbe, manager, Birth Equity at Providence Swedish. “What about helping pregnant women feel fulfilled? Or helping birthing parents think back to their experience and smile about it? We want every caregiver to leave a positive impact because care is exceptional. That means we focus on those connections and helping patients feel they are understood and not just a statistic.”

This April, Providence is recognizing Black Maternal Health Week and the work the JUST Birth Network at Providence Swedish is doing to improve health equity for birthing parents, regardless of race or ethnicity.

“Every birthing person deserves a wholesome experience, one where they feel empowered, involved in their choices and birth in a way they want to birth,” says Akangbe. “That includes our patients who experience trauma, speak a different language or come from a different culture.

Changing the conversation around Black maternal health

In the U.S., Black women are three times more likely to die from a pregnancy-related cause than white women. This health disparity, and others, are familiar to Black birthing parents. However, leading the conversation with these statistics does a disservice to the birthing experience.

“The way we speak about things allows them to manifest,” says Akangbe. "We know the statistics about Black women and their babies around stillborn, maternal mortality and infant mortality rates, but that fear is a reality Black women and birthing parents are experiencing in the health care system every day. They know it. They don't need that constant reminder, especially when they are about to have the life-changing experience of having a baby."

Through the JUST Birth Network, Akangbe and her team are working to change this dynamic by empowering caregivers to bridge the information gap with families. That includes shifting the conversation to one that encompasses the joy that this time brings to new mothers, asking these soon-to-be parents what they imagine for their child and their hopes and dreams for the experience.

At Providence, caregivers take pride that mothers choose to deliver their babies at Providence hospitals, but with that choice comes a commitment for caregivers to build relationships with patients. While they will bring up important risk factors and considerations like preeclampsia, gestational diabetes and postpartum depression, it’s important to get to know their patients first.

“Moms will live with every part of this experience for the rest of their lives,” says Akangbe. “Often, patients will make the best decisions for themselves and it is our job as caregivers to listen to their needs and provide the information and resources to support them.”

Supporting Black birthing parents at every stage

The JUST Birth Network provides care and guidance for Black, African American, African, Native American, Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander and Latinx women and birthing people with a team of caregivers that is representative of the communities they are serving.

"In some cases, Black patients felt that their caregivers weren't showing up for them in a way that made them feel seen, heard or understood," says Akangbe. “We needed an experience for members of our community so people could give birth in the way that felt right for them culturally when they show up at the hospital for maternity care. That also meant, as Black caregivers, we needed to show up first as our full selves.”

The network offers doula support throughout prenatal care, labor and delivery, and postpartum support. These doulas provide a range of services including childbirth education (offered by Latinx and Black educators), cultural navigation, patient advocacy during birth, lactation consulting and parental support.

“We want patients to feel like they’re going home with everything they need and have someone who can advocate for them and bridge with providers,” says Akangbe. “We are working to heal relationships members of these communities have with women’s health and making sure we build bridges so Providence can stand up well as a health care system in the community.”

These doulas also support community engagement, including checking in on postpartum moms at home to make sure they are healing, connecting with their babies and have access to healthy food and a strong support network. The JUST Birth Network also partners with organizations, like BLKBRY, which provides reproductive, perinatal and infant health care, along with breastfeeding support, for Black communities.

“We work with these community organizations to ensure patients are getting culturally affirming care and support,” says Akangbe. “Oftentimes, having spaces and resources that are for someone who looks like you removes the barriers and challenges of receiving those resources. Health equity makes these resources directly available to patients so they are starting in a good place.”

The JUST Birth Network is honoring Black Maternal Health Week as a time to decompress, educate and celebrate the human connections caregivers make with their patients.

“Our bodies and experience are ours,” says Akangbe. “We are living in our own bodies and know them intimately. We want to empower our health care providers to trust and amplify their patients’ voices and help them when they say things don’t feel right.”

Contributing caregiver

Sauleiha Akangbe is the manager of Birth Equity services at Providence Swedish.

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Related resources

Hear Me Now: The JUST Birth Network

Discover the benefits of having a doula by your side

Hear Me Now: The importance of racial concordance in health care

Providence is working to end health inequities related to sepsis

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional’s instructions.