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Weekend walk at Druid Hill Park will promote infant health

FamilyFitnessU.S. Department of Health and Human Services

This Saturday hundreds of people are expected to converge on Druid Hill Park — some pushing strollers, some toddling alongside their moms — to raise awareness about prenatal health.

The second annual Baby Buggy Walk in the Park is an attempt to promote healthy lifestyles for women who are pregnant or people — of either gender — who are considering becoming parents. Part health fair and part party, the event will feature music from station 92Q, and radio personality Sonjay DeCaires will emcee. Maryland's secretary of health, Joshua Sharfstein, will also be on hand.

Baltimore Healthy Start and the U.S. Office of Minority Health and other state and local health officials are hosting the event. The walk, part of a nationwide campaign to mark Infant Mortality Awareness Month, features a 1.5-mile stroll and activities promoting health, wellness and fitness. Activities for adults and kids will include nutritious-cooking demonstrations, jump rope contests, arts and crafts and more.

One of the participants in the walk will be Danisha Auston, who signed up for the healthy start program when she was pregnant in 2011.

"It was great," said Auston, whose daughter, La-mya, is now 1. "It helped me a lot. Everything I needed, I got it."

Through home visits from Healthy Start, Auston received advice and information on taking care of her daughter. One thing she learned was infant sleep safety, including putting La-mya to sleep on her back instead of on her stomach.

Adriane Wesson, the service area manager at Healthy Start, was among a number of mentors who helped Auston before, during and after her pregnancy. Wesson said Healthy Start brought a baby-safety checklist for the home along with early-childhood-development activities for Auston and her daughter to use together. Auston said she attends children's activities and events put on by Healthy Start and recommends the program to friends.

"I tell people about it," she said. "I really like the program."

Auston's daughter is scheduled to stay in the program for another year.

Baltimore Healthy Start president and chief executive, Alma Roberts, said the program aims to reduce infant deaths, identify the causes of infant deaths and improve the health and well being of families. It serves about 1,600 clients each year.

It's imperative, Roberts said, for women to keep their own bodies healthy for the sake of their babies.

"It's important to understand that if you can get a woman healthy and keep her healthy, even if you're helping her manage a disease in an effective way, it has such a tremendous impact on what that birth outcome could be," Roberts said. "We [at Baltimore Healthy Start] look at it holistically because we know that the well-being of the mother and the father has a great impact on the baby."

Roberts said some things women often get wrong about infant care, such as putting their babies to sleep incorrectly, not breastfeeding long enough, or feeding the baby formula at the same time. She said one of the most common misperceptions women have is how long they should wait to have sex after the delivery.

"A lot of women have a misconception that there's a period of time that they're not ovulating or that they can't get pregnant after the delivery," Roberts said. "That leads to unintended pregnancies."

Roberts said doctors usually advise women to wait at least two weeks after delivery to have intercourse, and to begin family planning immediately, because it's not healthy to have one pregnancy immediately after another.

In terms of fetal health, Roberts said breastfeeding is key.

"I can't say enough about breastfeeding," she said. "It helps regulate the mother's weight, the baby's weight, and makes for smarter babies and healthier babies."

To promote fetal health, Roberts also said women should:

•Take all prenatal vitamins.

•Exercise while pregnant to the extent that a doctor allows.

•Create a post-pregnancy plan.

•Keep all appointments for all steps of the pregnancy as well as the child's appointments.

•Keep themselves mentally and physically healthy before and during pregnancy.

Although Maryland's infant mortality rate reached an all-time low last year — 6.3 per 1,000 live births — Roberts said the overall infant mortality rate in Baltimore is 9.7 per 1,000 live births. The infant mortality rate among African-American infants in Baltimore, she said, is 12.6 per 1,000 live births. Roberts said if Baltimore were a country, its infant mortality rate, across all races, would not rank well against other countries.

"If Baltimore were a country, it would be 76th in terms of our rate of infant deaths," she said.

Roberts said obesity is a major contributor to the disparity in infant mortality rates among African American infants.

"Often [women] don't know that their weight and their own health can affect the baby," she said.

Dr. J. Nadine Gracia, deputy assistant secretary of minority health and director of the Office of Minority Health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said the national infant mortality rate has declined by 12 percent from 2005 to 2011. As of 2011, the rate is 6.05 per 1,000 live births. The rate of decline in African-American communities has been the greatest, with a 16 percent decline.

Gracia said rates of obesity and other chronic conditions are higher in African-American communities across the country, and access to health care is essential.

"Many of these conditions may be preventable, and that's the importance of access to preventive care and screenings," Gracia said.

Author and activist Tonya Lewis Lee, wife of director Spike Lee, will be speaking at the Baby Buggy walk. Lee said one of the biggest problems in terms of infant health is that women often decide to get healthy only after they're already pregnant.

"The fact of the matter is that what you put in your body when you're 18 can have an impact on your unborn child when you're 30," Lee said.

Lee said that stress is another factor in infant mortality and maternal health, and that men's health also plays a role. Fathers, she said, need to be just as physically and mentally healthy as mothers and work to provide a stress-free environment for the women having their children.

"The health of the father, his physical health and well-being, is important," Lee said. "We put the onus on mom because she's the carrier, but men have a huge role as well."

Elizabeth Guerico, a mother and former client at Baltimore Healthy Start, now works at the organization doing outreach to spread the word about the program.

"There's a lot of pregnant women out there that need our help, and they don't know about Baltimore Healthy Start," she said. "So hopefully we can open the doors for them."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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