I’ve been working with WIC for a little more than six years. So when I first found out that I was pregnant, I was excited. But that joy quickly faded to fear, because I knew all too well the maternal health disparities that Black women face when navigating healthcare systems.
My challenges began when my healthcare providers, the people who are supposed to be your advocates throughout your pregnancy and postpartum journey, dismissed on-going health concerns that I raised. Through two incidents of preterm labor and an infected incision from my C-section, I told my providers at every juncture that something was wrong, but no one would listen. Nobody should have to push and fight to get the help they need, especially when your life's on the line.
When I started to experience those issues, it made me even more afraid. While terrifying, this narrative is sadly unsurprising for many Black women. Research shows that 22% of Black women receive a lower quality of care than white women, are subject to discrimination in healthcare (Source: NCBI), and are three to five times more likely to have a maternal death than white women in the United States. (Source: AJMC).
A lot of moms don't have support. As a WIC provider, I always start with the basics, but my first priority is listening. This is especially critical for Black women participating in the program, as WIC reaches nearly half of all pregnant Black women (Source: USDA). If you really take the time to allow the mother to direct the conversation, you can identify the areas in which she needs more assistance. In that way, you are not making an assumption about what they need, because they're telling you what they need.
In my work, I've seen a lot of Black moms that, not just feel like, but know that they are not listened to. Much like my own experience, they know when something is wrong with their bodies. Rightfully, these women are not satisfied with their level of care, but they feel stuck with that provider, because they don't know of other providers or other options to help them through their pregnancy or whatever it is that they are experiencing.
Oftentimes, WIC is the first place that moms or their families think of when they are pregnant. As the starting place where women come for guidance and resources, we share a responsibility to put them on the right path by helping them establish insurance, educating them on the benefits of breastfeeding, and telling them about the advantages of early action prenatal care to name a few. However, our own lack of information and/or biases creates a disconnect between the services we share and the services that are needed most.
For that, let’s take a closer look at breastfeeding in the Black community. Many Black moms do not know about the benefits of breastfeeding or how to establish breastfeeding. I always strive to make it a priority in my initial appointments with all moms, but especially Black moms, to establish the conversation about breastfeeding. Why? Because I know that this is a nationwide issue, where only 75.5% of Black infants are breastfed compared to more than 85% of White and Latinx moms. (Source: CDC) This is why it's so important that WIC strengthens its peer counselor program and support pathways for Black women to obtain professional credentials in lactation support.
So how can we work to make a better, more equitable system for Black women? The research is clear on all of the disparities that Black moms face. Look at the research and then let your actions follow. When you’re working with Black women and families, keep those statistics in the front of your mind so that you can lead with awareness. Once you recognize that those disparities exist, your work will follow.
LaShonna Thompson is the WIC clinic manager at New Hope Services, Inc. in Clark County, Indiana. Check out LaShonna’s webinar for Black Maternal Health Week.
The Black Maternal Health Momnibus Act is the most comprehensive legislative effort to address racial disparities in maternal health access. The legislative package includes several key WIC priorities - including an extension of WIC’s postpartum eligibility to two years, funding to grow and diversify the perinatal workforce (including nutritionists, dietitians, and lactation consultants), anti-bias trainings for the WIC workforce, and funding to build health information exchanges for maternity care providers (including WIC clinics).