TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) — Research points to a link between the significance and meaning blacks attach to their race and mental and physical health. So University of Alabama assistant professor Wanda Martin Burton wondered if racial identity also had a role to play in explaining the persistent disparity between the birth weights among children of black mothers and their white counterparts.

Stress experienced by mothers can have an impact on birth weights, noted Burton, who is a faculty member in the College of Human and Environmental Science. Positive racial identity has been shown to act as a buffer against the stress of discrimination, so Burton was curious if that buffering effect would influence birth weights.

Burton explored the hypothesis in 2011 and 2012 as a graduate student at UA by surveying black mothers in Tuscaloosa and the surrounding area. She said she found a correlation between racial identity and birth weight. Mothers who reported having full-term babies with normal birth weights reported a stronger racial identity than mothers who reported having preterm babies.

"The only thing that was significantly different about them was racial identity," Burton said, noting the research screened for other factors in low birth weights such as socioeconomic status, education level and maternal age.

Low birth weight is the leading cause of infant mortality in black infants in the United States, and in Alabama, the low birth weight rate for black babies is nearly double the national average. Burton's research aims to change that disparity.

Her research was published in the spring use of the Journal of Health Disparities Research and Practice in an article titled "Addressing the Racial Disparity in Birth Outcomes: Implications for Maternal Racial Identity on Birth Weight."

Burton's co-authors were UA professor Maria Hernandez-Reif and Brad Lian of Mercer University, formerly at UA, who were faculty members on Burton's thesis committee.

The study yielded interesting results, but Burton said further research is needed to investigate the possible link.

"These finding are interesting and provocative and should lead to further research on why perhaps being immersed in your culture might protect you as a pregnant woman and lead to better health outcomes for your children," Hernandez-Reif said. "There is that whole issue of support that might me underlying those effects."

The average rate for black mother's in Alabama who have infants born with low birth weights was 14.6 percent compared to a statewide average of 10 percent, according to 2014 data cited in the paper. Nationwide, the rate of low birth weights among blacks was roughly 13 percent compared to an overall average rate of 8 percent of births.

There have been several different strategies to reduce racial disparity in birth weight, but the rates have largely remained the same, Burton said.

"This has long been a disparity between blacks and whites," Burton said.

Defining racial identity

Burton was at a conference where research was presented about the impact of relationship quality on birth weights when she became curious about the impact of racial identity. Racial identity is defined in her paper as the significance and meaning that blacks attribute to their membership within the black racial group.

The study focused on women who were in the optimal maternal delivery range of 21-35 years of age. Of the 107 women surveyed, 72 were included in the analysis. The average age was around 25. The majority, 42, was married and fell into the middle of the socioeconomic scale. The study excluded women who did not complete high school to account for the negative impact of education on birth weight.

In the study, birth weights were categorized in relation to using a standard of 5.5 pounds. Birth weights below 5.5 pounds were considered low. Of the participants, 17 percent reported low birth weights.

The women reported their children's birth weight, length and term status. They also provided their socioeconomic status and measures of their mood and racial identity and identification with black culture.

Survey participants were asked what their race meant to them and how important it was to how they felt about themselves.

"It is actually pretty individualized," Burton said.

Positive racial identities can help people better deal with stressors like racist interactions and perceived racial discrimination, Burton said. Conversely, negative views can contribute to poorer health.

High scores indicated greater identification with their race and more immersion into black culture.

While the researchers expected there would be some correlations, Burton said she was surprised by the results.

Birth weights increased 4.2 ounces for each additional degree of positive self-image related to being black, according to the analysis of the data collected by Burton.

"I am very much surprised in the difference in the amount of weight," she said. "Usually when you do birth weights, you change an ounce if you are lucky."

The study also found birth weights decreased nearly 2 ounces with each additional year of age, supporting a theory of "weathering" in which blacks experience early health deterioration as a consequence of the cumulative exposure to racialized and socioeconomic stress.

"I did not expect younger women would have better birth weight outcomes than women (who were in the traditionally accepted optimal range)," she said.

The weather hypothesis is similar to accelerated aging, she said.

"Basically, the stress of injustice oppression can be internalized and change the way the body ages," she said. "... Racism almost becomes embedded in our bodies physically."

Dealing with racism

Burton sees her research as an interesting starting point for longer-term and broader projects. She would like to see a statewide data collection project and possibly longitudinal that track racial identity perceptions over time. Burton used the example of a study assessing racial identity in high school and following up 10 years later.

Burton also sees the findings as an opportunity for the community to begin discussing and dealing with racism in a sincere way. Hernandez-Reif said the work can help create awareness.

"What I do think is it's important that black women have the space and opportunity to talk about stressors that are related to black women in a way they can challenge the debate narrative around what it means to be a black women so they can be more validated empowered," Burton said.

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Information from: The Tuscaloosa News, http://www.tuscaloosanews.com