Kent State joins effort in combatting infant mortality in Ohio


Information provided by The Ohio Department of Health. 

In 2016, The Ohio Department of Health released data which showed high infant mortality rates across different races in the state, the highest being black women. The report named nine metropolitan areas in Ohio with the worst amount of infant deaths, which included Akron, Toledo, Cleveland and Canton.

Since then, there’s been a push for initiatives to help decrease infant deaths. In 2017, First Year Cleveland — the city’s infant mortality initiative — announced a three-year plan to eliminate factors that cause infant death. In February of this year, the Ohio Department of Medicaid (ODM) gave over $1.7 million to organizations in Summit County to help combat it. The money is a part of ODM’s $26.8 million budget.  

Researchers at Kent State are currently examining the effects stress and anxiety have on premature births. Angela Neal-Barnett, a psychology professor, researches anxiety disorders. She helped to create an intervention called the S.O.S. Sisters Circle, where Barnett and other researchers work with expecting moms and inform them on how to combat anxiety.

Neal-Barnett said black women have the highest infant mortality due to stressors caused by discrimination in society.

“Things like transportation, education, opportunity, … every day, in some small way, black women face (discrimination),” Neal-Barnett said. “When we look at the cumulative affect of it, we believe that it may be playing a role at birth.”

Stacy Scott of Baby 1st Network in Cuyahoga Falls calls it “Weathering,” a term coined by a professor at the University of Michigan. Weathering includes all the factors black women have to face — such as a high rate of discrimination — which causes them chronic stress, Scott said.


“You have a high population of African-Americans in urban communities, so you’ll see a major increase in infant mortality because communities are much more vulnerable,” Scott said. “Around the impact of racism, discrimination, redlining, the number of African-American males that are incarceration, (they) can all be attributed to it.”

Neal-Barnett said the Ohio Commission on Minority Health and Sisters of Charity Foundation gave the department funds to help form the study, and there are around 20 women participating. They are currently running three sister circles. 

“We give them the tools on how to reduce that stress and anxiety, including cognitive musical restructuring, where they come up with their own theme song and use it in stressful situations,” Neal-Barnett said.

Other ways include pregnancy yoga, healthy eating and how to use foods in different ways, such as keeping hair moisturized with avocados.

Christin Farmer, the founder and executive director of Birthing Beautiful Communities, said having a support system could mean all the difference when it comes to combatting infant mortality, particularly in black women.

“If you have adequate social support for women, then they do have a better chance of being healthy during pregnancy and after they have the body because some of that toxic stress can be passed through to the baby,” Farmer said. “We don’t want to have that stress lingering in utero and affecting the baby which is a part of why a lot of black women have low birth weight babies.”

Both Scott and Neal-Barnett noted the high infant mortality rate among black women lacks a correlation to socioeconomic status, which Scott said is a stereotype. There isn’t a difference between the low-income black women population or the high-income population, they said.

While stress is a large factor, there are two other leading causes — sleep-related deaths and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). SIDS is usually unexpected and occurs when the baby is less than a year old, according to MayoClinic


Babies who are born with respiratory defects, low birth weight or a respiratory cold are the most at stake.

The mother can also increase the risk of SIDS by smoking, using drugs and alcohol, or being 20 years old or younger. Sleep-related deaths include sharing the bed, having the baby sleep on a soft surface, or the baby sleeping on their sides or stomach, leading to breathing issues.

Scott said the first step any woman should take is prenatal care to help avoid future issues.

“Early entry of prenatal care is a must, so if you even think that you’re pregnant, you need to immediately go and be tested to see if you are,” Scott said. “Really know your body; knowledge is care.”

Not only should women seek prenatal care to avoid future situations, but the presence of a father could also make a difference. Scott said the support of a father could reduce stress immensely, and if they aren’t present before, during and after the pregnancy, it could contribute to the poor health of the baby.

Even though Scott believes Ohio’s initiatives are strong when it comes to preventing infant deaths, she feels there needs to be more support for families who lost their child.

“We see all of these babies who don’t make it to their first birthday,” Scott said. “Our concern is who is servicing the parents after these babies die? So that’s always a point, although we are promoting to save lives, we also want to help especially African-American parents who don’t necessarily reach out for that support.”

Once a baby passes away, it’s common to see a development of depression, divorces and substance abuse, which Scott said could be prevented if families had more support.

“When it comes to African-American funerals, you’ve got the church, you’ve got your family, everybody is in your home and making sure you’re all right. But it’s always about those three to four weeks later when everybody has gone back to their own respective corners, and you’re left there alone,” Scott said. “And you really begin to understand and grieve and really realize that loss. So I think that’s a window of opportunity we miss in servicing that population.”

Lydia Taylor is the editor. Contact her at [email protected].

Dartalia Alati is a staff writer. Contact her a [email protected].