When my daughter was born, they kept her in the NICU overnight to make sure that her breathing went back to normal. I was frightened, emotional and hormonal, and the only thing I wanted to do was hold my baby tight and never let her out of my sight — so much so that I only slept if I was holding her. Wanting to protect my daughter could have caused her to pass away too soon.

Proud to be a new mom, I walked into the pediatrician’s office with my newborn and did not know what to expect. Was I doing this mom thing the right way? I was taking advice from my parents and other seasoned family members, only to find out from my pediatrician that I was taking great risks. He took a direct approach and really emphasized room sharing instead of co-sleeping and back sleeping instead of stomach sleeping for my baby. “African American babies are at an increased risk of not making it to their first birthday when they are exposed to certain risk factors,” he said.

I shrugged it off and said to myself, “It could never happen to me.”

I am blessed to still have my daughter here today, but looking back on the choices I made, I knew the risks I was taking but still took them.

“Better to be safe than sorry” is a phrase that seems to apply to most of our lives. In fact, most of us have been on both ends of safe and sorry. Interestingly enough, we still take risks that could end in sorrow.

Infant mortality is one of those disheartening subjects that have been known to go either way. While the national average for infant deaths ranks at almost 6%, Forsyth County’s rate rises over 9%, according to data from the North Carolina Center for Health Statistics.

Factors that contribute to this high rate include low birth weight, premature births, smoking, substance abuse, hazardous sleeping areas, little access to health care, cultural norms and genetics. Most of these risk factors are preventable and can be addressed before an infant is born. Racial disparities contribute greatly to infant mortality around the country as well as Forsyth County. African American non-Hispanic babies are more likely to die before their first birthday compared to white babies. This rate is 19.3%, which is more than half again the rate in the entire United States.

Protective factors that can help prevent an infant death include breastfeeding, pacifier use, room sharing, immunizations and back sleeping. Some mothers are given this information before and/or after the birth of their child. No mother intentionally wants to walk up to their infant and realize they are gone. What could be done differently for those infant deaths that were preventable? It all boils down to making a choice that has a safe outcome.

The choice to be aware of the risk factors and act accordingly can be comparable to wearing a safety belt when driving and riding in a car. Most of us have endured the informational videos and even heard personal stories from parents or family members who say their loved one’s death could have been prevented if they had just put on a seatbelt. Yet we still have individuals who decide not to wear one.

Let’s take education to another level by first challenging ourselves and those around us to make better choices when it comes to their babies.

The Forsyth County Preventative Health Services Division has created and continued a variety of initiatives to help mothers, children and babies. Healthy Start Baby Love Plus, WIC Program and Parenting Education are a few programs that are working toward decreasing infant mortality in our community. Even if you are not a mother, you can help other mothers by informing them of the risks and speaking up if you see risky behaviors. You can also share this information on your social media pages or get involved with any of the groups I suggested. If you are presenting this information with love and making it readily available to others, you can save a life!

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Tonjia Kiara Armstrong is a 2019 candidate for a Master’s of Science degree in Couple and Family Counseling from Walden University. She lives in Winston-Salem.

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