PASADENA – As far back as 1850, African-American families in the United States have faced higher rates of infant mortality than those of other races. People have blamed factors from socioeconomic status to education, but so far, nothing has been found that completely explains the phenomenon. “People always think `Well, it’s because we’re dealing with poor black girls on crack in the ghetto,”‘ said Jack Turman, founder and director of the USC Center for Premature Infant Health and Development. “This is not true. This is a disparity that affects all African Americans.” The search for the cause of this “infant mortality crisis,” Turman said, has since expanded to include a new consideration: a lifetime of racial and environmental stress. In Pasadena, three groups are now joining forces to understand more about the role stress plays, and to try to combat the deadly effect it might have. Among them is the Pasadena Birthing Project, the 12-year-old branch of a national program founded to improve mortality statistics for black babies. The program matches pregnant mothers with “sister friends,” fellow community members who receive training to provide guidance and support during the pregnancy and the child’s first year of life. “She wasn’t afraid to make sure that I was OK, whereas some other people might not have wanted to step on my toes,” said Angela Harrison, a mother of twin 5-year-old girls, of her sister friend. “She was not scared to make sure that I was progressing the way I should, making sure I was relaxing and not stressing.” Contrary to the stereotypes, it is women such as Harrison – a married, registered nurse – who are at the highest risk of preterm deliveries and low-weight babies, said Wenonah Valentine, executive director of the Pasadena Birthing Project. “It’s a bigger scope than teen mothers, because what we discovered is that women that have the highest incidence of infant death are African-American women that are over 35, married and working,” she said. “The stress factor is high for working women,” Valentine said. “Whether she’s working at Target or as a business executive, she’s the one that’s losing babies.” In the United States, black infants are two times more likely than non-Latino white infants to weigh less than 5 pounds 8 ounces or to be delivered more than one week early. They are three times more likely to weigh less than 3 pounds 4 ounces or be born more than six weeks early. According to a recently released County of Los Angeles Public Health department report, these trends have only gotten worse in recent years. Starting this fall, the Pasadena Birthing Project and USC researchers will team up with Pasadena Church to study the role of stress on black women and provide the tools for coping with it. “Stress in a woman’s life will alter her cardiovascular system, her immune system, and her hormone system,” Turman said. “Stress and reproductive health don’t go together.” Valentine hopes to match more pregnant women with sister friends. All women will also have the chance to participate in a faith-based stress management program. For three years, Turman and his fellow USC researchers will track their stress levels, use of stress coping skills and reproductive health. “What makes it critical,” Valentine said, “is mom’s health is the incubator that the baby thrives in.” email@example.com (626) 578-6300, Ext. 4451160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!