Addressing Unconscious Bias in the NICU

February 28, 2019

unconscious bias (1) hand to hold

Prematurity does not discriminate. Women of every race, religion and socioeconomic background experience premature birth of their babies every year. But black women in the United States experience disproportionate and unacceptable poor maternal health outcomes. A growing body of research about black infant mortality finds systemic racism and the chronic stress of being a black woman in this country are leading factors in the gap in birth outcomes.

Debbie Allen, the owner and clinical director of Tribe Midwifery, was quoted in a recent article titled, “What Pregnant Black Women Need to Know to Have a ‘Safe and Sacred Birth,’” saying, “Walking around in a black body can be stressful as heck. It’s amazing. But it’s also stressful.” She went on to highlight the importance of social support and the impact it can have on the mother’s physical, emotional and mental health.

Hand to Hold’s mission is not to tackle the systemic barriers that have contributed to the disparity in maternal health outcomes, but to ensure our programs and services are designed to meet the needs of all moms in the NICU. We are on the front lines to provide the critical social support black moms have traditionally found lacking in healthcare. Not surprisingly they are more reluctant to trust medical staff and have reported feeling unheard and unimportant. Sadly, they often do not feel like a valued partner in their child’s care.

Through a “Focus on the Fourth” [trimester] grant provided by St. David’s Foundation in Austin, Texas, Hand to Hold is working to address these issues by:

  • launching an awareness campaign that resonates with women of color,
  • increasing the number of women of color on our Board of Directors, staff and as peer mentors,
  • updating our mentor training to address issues for women of color, and
  • connecting women of color to resources through CareStarter’s Care Map.

We are working to help NICU moms of color to:

  • recognize signs and symptoms postpartum depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder,
  • seek support when these issues are identified,
  • feel confident in integrating themselves into their baby’s care team,
  • become confident and competent caregivers to their medically fragile infants, and
  • feel confident advocating for their child’s needs.

In addition, Hand to Hold is dedicated to:

  • understanding and empathizing with the challenges NICU moms of color face,
  • helping NICU professionals better understand challenges NICU moms of color face.

Recently, Hand to Hold sponsored a training for NICU medical professionals in Austin titled Identifying and Mitigating Unconscious Bias. Despite our best efforts, it is almost impossible not to develop some unconscious bias over a lifetime. The training provided a safe environment in which medical professionals could share their feelings and open up about the challenges of serving a very diverse population in the NICU.

Hand to Hold is proud to be part of the important dialogue and direct action taking place on a local and national level. But we have only begun to scratch the surface to address the damage done by generations of systemic racism. Our job is to ensure all moms who experience a NICU stay with their baby know without a doubt that with us, they have a Hand to Hold.