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  • Writer's pictureChardá Bell, IBCLC, CBE, CD

Racism & Bias in the NICU is Real - But Help is Here!

Photo Credit: Client / Chinasa C. - Unauthorized usage of photo will result in immediate legal action.

As September comes to a close, I’d like to acknowledge NICU Awareness Month. In my work, I’ve seen a huge uptick in the number of Black babies going into the NICU, especially since the pandemic. As a doula, lactation consultant, and perinatal health navigator, I've had the honor of supporting dozens of Black families with babies in the NICU.

This is of course my own anecdotal evidence, however, it’s valid and I can back it up AND provide research based evidence to explain the detrimental effects of racism and bias in the NICU, see here y'all.

I have provided postpartum and feeding support by space holding & doing lactation peer counseling with families who have a baby that has been sent to the NICU with no explanation of their rights and/or expectations of being in the NICU. Hospitals must do better in educating these families.

The grim reality we face is that Black babies placed in the NICU oftentimes receive lower quality care and attention than white babies. Black babies are dying at 3x the rate of non-Hispanic white babies with no slowing in sight. The lack of appropriate and unbiased care for African American babies contributes to a disportionately high death rate among our Black infants.

The stress of structural racism that impact Black women on a daily basis is one factor that lends to the tragic Black maternal health crisis. Black women have less access to prenatal care and early prenatal care due to explicit bias toward us in all the systems and that often leads to babies being born prematurely and/or having to be sent to the NICU. This further traumatizes the mother and baby with separation, not to mention the scare tactics that were likely forced on a mother during the labor which makes them somewhat hysterical from enduring a far from positive birthing experience and the NICU is the outcome. Black families should be empowered and encouraged to have the information needed to make educated decisions for their baby and staff should be the main facilitators of implementing this systems change. However, we cannot and must not wait, our babies depend on us, that’s why I wrote this blog to hopefully provide some rays of hope and light to families who may be struggling with the challenges of managing postpartum life in the NICU.

Photo Credits: Client - Chinasa C. / She was an amazing NICU advocate for her baby!

These images were provided by my client and only the family and Melanin Milk SD have consent to use these photos. Unauthorized usage, copying or downloading of these photos will result in immediate legal action.

Now that you have the inside scoop on the pitfalls and barriers of NICU care for Black families, let me share some ways to support yourself and/or others dealing with a lack of support or education in the NICU:

  • Request a primary nurse for your baby

  • Ask for an IBCLC or lactation consultant

  • Ask for donor milk if needed or desired - read my blog about milk banking

  • Remember, it is STILL YOUR baby, they work for you & your baby.

  • Be upfront about any problems with the staff immediately, don’t wait, write down all interactions good and bad to keep it in your memory/records in case you should need to file any complaints or thank you's.

  • Make a nurse "friend" to look after your baby

  • Remember you are the expert of your baby

  • Ask anything you want, truly! Don't be afraid to ask all the questions you want, nothing is a "dumb" question. If they make you feel that way, let them know and request to speak to someone else who will be more considerate.

  • It's OK to ask for a second opinion or another doctor; they know this isn't "personal"

  • Request a different room or bed for your baby or self

  • Chat with experts in the NICU; there are a ton of people around, use them that's why they work there! You can also ask for a social worker or request a new one, they will guide you through the more complicated aspects of things like finances and such.

For more information please visit March of Dimes on how to support or receive support for NICU families. It is an invaluable resources for parents of babies in the NICU. You can also donate here to combat racial inequality.

No matter what, you are ALWAYS the parent, you are the BEST advocate for your baby!

I’d like to give a special thank you to my client for sharing these photos with me for this blog. Your family means the world to me and you know we always say we are basically family now too! I’m truly blessed to have experienced your perinatal and parenting journey with you, as you’ve taught me as much as I’ve taught you, thank you for choosing to include me in your life. Love y’all!

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