Experiencing racism during pregnancy may have negative health consequences for women and their infants, reports a new study published in the journal Social Science & Medicine.
The research, conducted by Zaneta Thayer, Ph.D., an assistant professor of anthropology and the University of Colorado at Denver and her team, is possibly the first to show a direct link between ethnic discrimination and levels of the stress hormone cortisol in pregnant women and their infants.
The Lingering Impact of Discrimination
“Many people think that ethnic discrimination only has psychological impacts,” Thayer said in a university interview. “But in fact, ethnic discrimination can impact physical health as well, possibly through changes in stress physiology functioning.”
Thayer and her team used measured cortisol levels in pregnant women and their infants to assess the potential damage caused by racism. High levels of cortisol increase your risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and hypertension. Increased maternal levels of cortisol during pregnancy are thought to lower childhood IQ; increase the odds of preterm delivery and therefore low birth weight and other pregnancy complications.
For the study, 64 women of various ethnic background were surveyed about their experiences with discrimination at 34 weeks and 36 weeks gestation. Their morning and evening levels of cortisol were also measured. Cortisol level measures were taken for the infants once the women gave birth.
Thirty-four percent of the women reported experiencing discrimination during their pregnancy. The minority and immigrant women in the study were more likely to report feeling angry or upset after being discriminated against than the European study participants.
Discrimination was defined as being harassed, verbally or physically attacked, insulted, ignored or condescended to based on race or ethnicity.
The women who reported being discriminated against had higher levels of cortisol than the other women in the study. Their infants were also born with higher levels of cortisol than the other infants in the study.
The differences in cortisol levels did not change in relationship to the socioeconomic status of the women.
“The finding that offspring of women who experienced ethnic discrimination had greater cortisol reactivity in early infancy adds to the growing evidence that a woman’s emotional, physical and mental well-being, during pregnancy can influence the biology of her child,” Thayer added.
The Impact on African American Women & Children
Thayer’s study offers one more possible clue to the cause of the crisis in infant mortality that devastates thousands of black women and their children each year.
America’s infant mortality rate, at 5.33 per 1,000 births for white women is unacceptable for one of the world’s richest nations; the United States ranks 56th in the world. But the rate among African Americans is more than double that number at 12.40 per 1,000 births.
Low birth weight (under 5.5 pounds) and very low birth weight (under 3.4 pounds) is also disproportionately high among African American infants (13.4 percent and 2.9 percent) compared to 7.2 percent and 1.2 percent for white women.
Children who are born underweight grow up with increased chances of developing respiratory, cardiac and developmental problems in childhood and possibly higher rates of hypertension, diabetes and heart disease in adulthood.
Protecting Yourself and Your Child
While it is sometimes impossible to avoid racism, you can arm yourself with tools to reduce your stress levels during pregnancy and more effectively deal with discriminatory events.
▪ Plan ahead. When deciding how you are going to receive prenatal care, eat and exercise during pregnancy, you should also create a stress management plan. Try out relaxation techniques that you can use anytime or anywhere.
▪ Keep dad in the mix. Whether you are married or single, let your baby’s father know that he plays an important role in protecting the health of your unborn child. African American babies whose fathers were absent during the pregnancy were seven times more likely to die in infancy than babies born to white women in a similar situation.
▪ Develop a constructive response. Experiencing racism is an event that can leave you enraged, hurt and feeling powerless. But psychologists say some responses are are healthier than others. They suggest:
-Respond. If it is safe, do not avoid the incident. Challenge the behavior, not the offender. Calmly deflect the comment with sharp humor, a reprimand or other comment, but stay calm and reply. Studies show that black women experience less stress and depression when they focus on the problematic racist event and speak up, rather than trying to avoid it.
-Get support. After you have dealt with the offender, if it’s possible, talk the event through with a family member, friend, or spiritual advisor. The idea is to get the feelings off your chest and avoid holding onto anger and anxiety or slipping into depression.
▪ Surround yourself with love. Do everything in your power to avoid toxic people and events during your pregnancy. Stay close to people who are kind and positive.
A Clue to the Cause of Keloid Scars
A new study conducted by scientists at the Henry Ford Health System revealed that a gene might contribute to the formation of keloid scars. African Americans are seven times more likely to develop disfiguring keloids on the head or neck. The researchers say this discovery brings them one-step closer to treatments that are more effective.