Local church leaders urged their congregations Sunday to be part of a citywide effort to fight infant mortality through the Strong Baby Sabbath initiative.
Originally coined the Safe Sleep Sabbath, Mayor Tom Barrett started the program five years ago. In an effort to prevent infant deaths, Barrett enlisted the help of local churches to support young families through education, awareness and action. He changed the name to Strong Baby Sabbath to highlight the leading cause of infant deaths in Milwaukee: premature births.
According to the Milwaukee Health Department, premature births account for nearly 60 percent of all infant deaths in Milwaukee, and 66 percent of all African-American infant deaths.
“The power of the church is to surround young mothers, fathers and children with love,” said Barrett. “When we talk about the church sanctuaries, it’s a way to reach these young families in a way that they need to be reached, and the faith community is a powerful, powerful partner in helping young women and children.”
Barrett, joined by Milwaukee Health Commissioner Bevan Baker and other community partners, spoke to a group of nearly 100 local faith leaders at the fifth annual Strong Baby Sabbath luncheon last week at Columbia St. Mary’s Hospital. The event also was supported by the Milwaukee Lifecourse Initiative for Healthy Families at United Way of Greater Milwaukee & Waukesha County.
This year, 10 churches were recognized for becoming Strong Baby Sanctuary locations for mothers in need of health care resources, food and family planning information.
Gerri Sheets-Howard, administrative director for Capuchin Community Services, was recognized at the event for making a positive impact on young mothers in her community and her church congregation at Bradford Memorial A.M.E. Church in Milwaukee.
“This Strong Baby Sanctuary program makes me feel empowered. I feel equipped with the information and the resources needed to help mothers take the necessary steps to avoid infant mortality,” said Sheets-Howard. “We want to empower our young mothers, we want to encourage them to become stronger mothers. We want them to be encouraged so that they know they are not alone.”
At the luncheon, Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin representative Dr. Veronica L. Gunn, described how stress and a lack of social support are the leading causes of premature birth. Dr. Gunn encouraged faith leaders to “lift up those families in your communities, in your churches, in your synagogues who are healthy and encourage them to role model that to others.”
The Strong Baby Sabbath program supports the mayor’s goal to reduce the city’s overall infant mortality rate by 10 percent and the African-American infant mortality rate by 15 percent by 2017.
The overall infant death rate for Milwaukee decreased from a rate of 10.2 for every 1,000 live births in 2011-2013 to 9.9 infant deaths in 2012-2104. The mortality rate of African-American infants is 15.3 compared to 5.2 for white infants, and 4.0 for Hispanic infants, according to the health department.