By Tamara Hawkins, RN, MSN, FNP, IBCLC, CHHC, LCCE
In honor of Black History Month, and as part of Science & Sensibility’s occasional series on welcoming all families to our classrooms and practices, Tamara Hawkins, RN, MSN, FNP, IBCLC, CHHC, LCCE writes a two part post for the series speaking to meeting the needs of families of color. Today, Tamara shares some insights into the experiences of women of color and their families in childbirth classes and on Thursday, Tamara will discuss how educators can make their classes friendly to women of color and their partners, with information and resources for the educator as well as other birth professionals. – Sharon Muza, Community Manager, Science & Sensibility
In my second year of nursing school, I gave birth to my daughter. When pregnant with her, I faced the choice of taking a Lamaze class or completing my Biochemistry course. Both classes were on the same night. I wanted to become a midwife and knew the benefits of birthing with the least amount of interventions. I also knew the stigma I would face as a single young Black mother so I prioritized and choose Biochemistry. I had to complete my semester before giving birth. I did not even think of taking a class other than what was offered at the hospital. I was not offered any alternatives either. I thought to myself, “How difficult could labor be? It all seemed so simple.” In preparation, I read the book, Preparation for Birth: The Complete Guide to the Lamaze Method by Beverly Savage and Diana Simkin. I was ready with the electric massager and my birth plan.
I never second thought the benefits of Lamaze class or thought it wasn’t something Black women did, however I clearly remembered people saying, “Why do you want to take that class?” “You don’t need that,” or just laughing because somehow I should’ve just known what to do and didn’t. Women in my neighborhood started having babies as teenagers. In the prenatal clinic, there was limited information about birthing options and childbirth education other than the public education programs that played endlessly on a loop in the waiting room. Grandmothers, who were mostly the primary caretakers, would expect the girls to tough it out without pain relief as this could be seen as punishment for getting pregnant so early. Some mothers hoped it would serve as a deterrent to getting pregnant again. Childbirth education was not an expectation as past generations just knew to go to the hospital when the pain got too bad. I was just expected to know to move and breath and squat and groan with the contractions and to just deal with the pain. The baby would eventually come out.
A few months after the birth, I wished I had taken a class. I had a horrible birth and breastfeeding experience. The book and “barely there” labor support was not enough to get me through the emotional challenges of labor. I needed more. I needed practice. I needed discussion. I needed to know the real deal and how to navigate the system. From my birth experience, I knew childbirth education was an essential path to have a beautiful normal birth experience. I felt so passionate about this that I became a Lamaze certified childbirth educator.
The women I get to mentor in my childbirth classes come from different cultures and backgrounds than I do. They have different fears and concerns. What troubles me is the low attendance of women of color (WOC) in childbirth classes. Lamaze class is about learning healthy habits, building confidence and facing fears. Techniques shared in class help women create solutions for potential labor scenarios and manage labor pain while partners learn skills to comfort and protect moms in labor and to communicate effectively with care providers. This is especially important for African American (AA) women.
The Office of Minority Health reports AA women have 2.3 times the infant mortality rate as non-Hispanic whites. AA women have twice the rate of sudden infant death syndrome and are 2.3 times more likely to begin prenatal care in the 3rd trimester than non-Hispanic white women. (Mathews, et al, 2013) The cesarean birth rate amongst AA women is no better. The rate of cesarean delivery declined among non-Hispanic white women for the third straight year to 32.3% in 2012. The 2012 cesarean rates rose, however, among non-Hispanic black (35.8%) and Hispanic (32.2%) women. (Hamilton, et al, 2013) Amnesty International 2010 report, Deadly Delivery: The Maternal Health Care Crisis in the USA revealed AA women are nearly four times more likely to die of pregnancy-related complications than white women. These rates and disparities have not improved in more than 20 years. (Amnesty International, 2010)
Attending childbirth class is a path, and some people may say, a Rite of Passage to achieve better health, better birth outcomes and better breastfeeding for African American Women. For the past two years, R.O.S.E., Women E-News and MomsRising have hosted a twitter chat (#blkbfing) encouraging women of color to breastfeed. These organizations also have to emphasize breastfeeding success starts with a normal birth, minimal interventions and a healthy mother. Skills and techniques learned in Lamaze classes support these outcomes.
So, if we know the health disparities that affect WOC during pregnancy and birth and the government knows, how can I and other educators reach and encourage more attendance in Lamaze class. Does the instructor need to look a certain way? Are childbirth classes just for white women? I sat down with Domineque and her husband Davon who delivered in New York City, NY and Reese McGillie, who birthed in Seattle, WA to talk about their experience attending a childbirth classes as women of color.
Tamara: Tell me about your experience in childbirth class? Were you the only African American in class?
Domineque: Well to start off as a new mom and WOC, I was really unsure what to expect at a Lamaze class. However, after discussing things with my husband and talking to others, we decided to give it a try. I wanted to know what others thought of Lamaze class. No one I knew ever attended one. As a school teacher, I am always into learning new things. I was nervous and afraid as this was a surprised pregnancy. I wanted everything to go right. I searched websites constantly and read tons of books. I must say I had a great experience. I felt a warm welcome and was very comfortable there. I don’t remember now if we were the only AA couple. (chuckles) I think we were, but I wasn’t bothered by that.
Reese: I had a familiar feeling of being the only AA woman in the class. It did not bother me during class. I might call it being complacent. Typically, I expect to be the only AA woman in classes, conferences and trainings. I had a great learning experience in my childbirth class. In hindsight, it would have been nice to have other AA women in attendance to not feel alone even though I was in a class full of people. You know, sort of having the ability to meet and join up with some Sista friends. Perhaps it was a combination of my security as a AA woman but sitting in that room, I knew no matter what, my experience would be different. I’m sure the other mothers did not worry about arriving at the hospital and having someone question them about their level of education, adequate prenatal care, whether they were married or even had a partner or even their competency level to parent their child.
TH: Do you feel the class touched upon topics specific to African American women such as higher rates of preterm labor, pre-eclampsia and lower rates of breastfeeding?
Reese: No. I wish it did. Twice I faced pre-term labor. My first baby was born at 34 weeks. I was sad and afraid especially because I could not get a clear answer as to why I was having pre-term labor. It would have been nice to know sometimes preterm births happen more in AA women and that the exact reasons why are unknown in most cases.
TH: Do you think learning about the risks associated with birthing and being AA would make a mother more or less anxious about the process?
Domineque: I believe it would make anyone more anxious when the topic is introduced. Giving strategies to reduce preterm birth such as recognizing labor contractions, how to time contractions, how to rest and hydrate oneself was discussed in class but not in the context of this only happens or happens more to AA women. We discussed pre-eclampsia in class but again not geared towards AA women. If it was just discussed as something that AA women experience more than other ethnicities, I might have felt singled out and self conscious. I did not know AA women experienced higher rates of pre-term births and pre-eclampsia. I am not sure if learning that specifically in class would have changed my learning experience.
TH: Did friends or family try to talk you out of the class? If so, what were their reasons for suggesting you not to take a class?
Domineque: I didn’t get persuaded or dissuaded from others. No one in my circle attended a childbirth class and really had no input into the decision. My husband and I talked about our fears of being young parents, newlyweds and my desire to have an unmedicated birth. We agreed to do it. Thank goodness no one tried to dissuade us.
Reese: I was encouraged to attend childbirth classes by my midwife. It was an expectation. I was excited to take a class with Penny Simkin.
TH: Did it make a difference to you whether your instructor was African American?
Domineque: No. I wanted someone who was experienced and fun. My biggest concern about attending a Lamaze class is whether or not it was going to be boring and just filled with breathing exercises.
Reese: No. I was already reading a book Penny Simkin authored and was excited to attend her class
TH: What were two skills you learned in class that you were able to apply in labor and/or after giving birth?
Domineque: Lamaze classes prepared me for a safe, healthy birth. I also learned about breathing and relaxation. Most importantly, I learned coping strategies and movement techniques. The class also gave me practical advice on how to start breastfeeding such as holding the baby skin to skin. I was able to breastfeed Dyllan for a long time. I was even surprised how easy it was to nurse in public. During our childbirth class there was a video clip of an AA woman breastfeeding her baby immediately after birth and I thought “Wow, I want to do that.”
TH: Did seeing images of AA women in birth and breastfeeding change your feelings or make you more confident about what you would be able to do in your birth?
Reese: Yes. Absolutely. I remember clearly the AA couple’s birth story in class. She seemed powerful. She was not in a hospital and it influenced my belief that even AA women could have beautiful experiences. That having great births were not just reserved for Caucasian women or those with money.
TH: What would you tell another African American mother about taking a childbirth class?
Domineque: I would tell them that after leaving the Lamaze class, I felt comfortable with breathing strategies and more at ease and confident. It was definitely worth it. The class prepared me to have conservations with my care providers. One of the best parts of class was practicing the use of the acronym B.R.A.I.N. I was learning how to assert myself in situations where I was taught the doctors knew everything and I shouldn’t question what was happening.
TH: Davon, what would you tell AA men about taking a childbirth class?
Davon: As a husband, I would tell all partners, not just AA men, to weigh out options on pain medication vs. no pain medication and be there to support your spouse every step of the way. I believe a lot couples choose not to attend a Lamaze class because they think all that’s needed is an epidural. I learned there is so much more to birth than just the physical pain of the contractions. A woman needs the most support during vulnerable times like deciding when to go to the hospital and help her to advocate for walking and changing positions in labor. My wife and I worked hard together to get through labor. Support is key. My wife was able to have an unmedicated birth using the techniques we learned and practiced in class.
TH: I have a few questions for the readers:
Is the Millennial generation of AA woman easier to reach and educate through social media instead of traditional classes? Are you an AA mother who attended a childbirth class? What was your experience? Were your needs met in class? If you did not take a class, how did you prepare for birth? Did friends and family support your decision or turn their nose up at you?
I am grateful these two women shared their experiences with me. They even gave me insight as an AA woman and instructor to become more sensitive to how I run my classes. I find myself wanting to be more inclusive and not make race an issue, at least not in birth. Is there any situation in life that race does not play a role? Stay tuned for my post on Thursday that will include resources on how to make classes culturally sensitive and welcoming to AA families.
Amnesty International. (2010). Deadly Delivery: The Maternal Health Care Crisis in the USA.
Hamilton BE, Martin JA, Ventura SJ. Births: Preliminary data for 2012. National vital statistics reports; vol 62, no 3. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. 2013.
Mathews TJ, MacDorman MF. Infant mortality statistics from the 2009 period linked birth/infant death data set. National vital statistics reports; vol 61 no 8. Hyattsville, MD: National Centers for Health Statistics. 2013.
About Tamara Hawkins
Tamara Hawkins, RN, MSN, FNP, IBCLC, CHHC, LCCE is the director of Stork and Cradle, Inc offering Prenatal Education and Breastfeeding Support. She graduated with a BSN from New York University and a MSN from SUNY Downstate Medical Center. She is a Family Nurse Practitioner and has worked with mothers and babies for the past 16 years at various NYC medical centers and the Elizabeth Seton Childbearing Center. Tamara has been certified to teach childbirth classes since 1999 and in 2004 became a Lamaze Certified Childbirth Educator and an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant. Follow Tamara on Twitter: @TamaraFNP_IBCLC