September is National Infant Mortality Awareness Month. It focuses on children who lose their lives before their first birthday and the causes of those deaths. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the infant mortality rate in the United States is 5.4 deaths per every 1,000 live births. In 2020, that amounted to just under 20,000 infant deaths.
Twenty thousand who will never speak their first words, walk their first steps or make their first friends. Children who will never go to school, form families of their own, work, play or experience the trials and joys that make up our world.
Here are some more startling facts:
- The U.S. infant mortality rate ranks among the worst among wealthy nations.
- Maternal mortality rates in the United States, defined as the death of a mother during pregnancy, delivery, or the first 42 days following delivery/termination, are also among the worst globally.
- Black women in the United States are three times as likely to die from pregnancy-related causes as white women.
In simple terms, it’s more dangerous to give birth in the United States than in many other nations. It’s also more dangerous to be a baby. And it’s even more dangerous to be a mother or child if you’re a person of color.
But what can dads do about it?
On a broad level, it starts with policies.
Paid family leave helps babies, parents, families
One major reason behind these sobering statistics is the lack of paid leave for working parents. America lags behind just about every other nation in terms of paid family and medical leave. Researchers at the National Institutes of Health note: “Mothers’ and fathers’ leave-taking may improve child health by decreasing postpartum depression among mothers, improving maternal mental health, increasing the time spent with a child, and increasing the likelihood of child medical checkup.”
Paid family leave gives parents time to bond as a family as well as care for an infant and each other during those intense, early times. When I became a first-time father, my teaching job offered just three days of paid leave. That wasn’t nearly enough time to help my new son or my wife or to become a family. It’s a big reason I chose to become an at-home dad. Some states have started implementing paid leave policies, but we have a long way to go. Advocating for paid leave policies is a big first step.
And perhaps paid family leave should start before birth. During the COVID-19 lockdowns, an interesting thing happened globally. Premature births, the second leading cause of infant mortality in the United States, declined dramatically. Is it possible that being home before birth helped lower stress and create healthier births? Research from the University of California, Berkeley, suggests that paid leave before birth may decrease the number of premature births in women.
Paid leave is a no-brainer. It is a significant step forward to decrease infant mortality and maternal mortality, not to mention a step toward economic, racial, and gender justice.
Support new mothers from the start
However, dads can do more than just advocating for leave, or take all the leave available to them. Supporting mothers during those early weeks and months is vital.
For example, breastfeeding is one of the best ways to increase a child’s health. However, it isn’t easy for many mothers and isn’t possible for some. Do you know how to make a good oatmeal that supports breastfeeding? I do. I made it for my wife almost every morning after she gave birth to our son.
However, being there for mothers is about more than just physically being around. Take time to listen to your partner. Know how her postpartum healing is supposed to progress and help monitor it. Learn the warning signs of postpartum depression. Check in with your partner often about how they’re feeling and if something seems off, make sure they get to a doctor.
Thousands of babies and mothers are dying. We need to do better for them.
We need policies in America to change this situation.
And we need dads to support and nurture their partners and families.
Yes, being a dad is a life-saving activity.
And a life-altering one.
And still the best job there is.