Black women in America are over twice as likely as white women to give birth to babies with low birth weight, and socioeconomic and healthcare disparities don’t fully explain the difference. Since low birth weight can predispose people to lung disease, cardiovascular problems, and diabetes later in life, researchers have been looking for a reason why it’s linked to race. Now a study reveals one answer: discrimination against women can actually affect the weight of their babies.
For a study published in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine, Valerie Earnshaw and her colleagues at Yale interviewed over 1,000 black and Latina girls and women between the ages of 14 and 21 (some groups of Latinas, such as Puerto Rican women, are also more likely than average to have low-birth-weight babies). They asked them how frequently they experienced forms of discrimination like being treated with less respect than other people, receiving poorer service, or being called names or insulted. They also asked whether they thought they were being discriminated against because of their race, their age, or other factors, and they screened the women for depression. When the babies were born, the researchers also recorded their weight.
The good news: across the board, the women reported relatively low levels of discrimination. However, even those low levels were associated with a significantly increased risk of low birth weight. That was true whether the women felt the discrimination was motivated by race or other factors.
The study also suggests one possible explanation for the harm discrimination might do to a developing fetus. Women who experienced more discrimination were also more likely to be depressed, and depression — both in this study and in previous research — has been found to be associated with low birth weight. Earnshaw says that by treating pregnant women’s depression, healthcare providers and social workers might be able to lessen the effects of discrimination.
Many studies, including a new one on ten-year-olds have found significant health disparities between white Americans and minorities, extending throughout life. Some have attributed these disparities to income, but other research [PDF] suggests that’s not the only factor. And discrimination has been shown to harm physical and mental health as well. According to Earnshaw and her coauthors, that harm may begin not just with children’s first experiences of prejudice, but with what their mothers go through before they’re even born.