KOKOMO, Ind. — A cardboard box — along with prenatal education — can save babies’ lives.
Fresh out of college with her health sciences degree, Andrea Zepeda is urging mothers to think inside the Baby Box, as a community health doula for Community Wellness Partners in Cass County.
“Not having a safe place to sleep can be fatal for an infant,” said Zepeda, who graduated in December from Indiana University Kokomo. “The box has a padded mat in it, and nothing else, so the baby sleeps in the safest possible environment, and has one less risk factor.”
In addition to a safe mattress, the box contains diapers, wipes, coupons, and a sleep sack for the baby, which is safer than using a blanket. The boxes are a more recent part of preparing for a newborn in the United States.
Zepeda works as part of the Speak Life Initiative, a free pregnancy assistance program targeted towards African American and Hispanic mothers, because data shows their babies are three times more likely to die before their first birthdays, she said. A doula is a trained professional who provides physical, emotional, and educational support to a mother, before, during, and shortly after childbirth.
“This job is a great mix of everything I hoped to do in my career,” said Zepeda. “I can support women through pre-natal care and childbirth, provide breastfeeding and tobacco cessation education, and teach them how to put their babies down safely to sleep. I am going to make a difference for these women and their families.”
While her doula services, including being in the delivery room, are specifically for those mothers, any pregnant woman or new mother in Cass County may access the other resources, including the baby boxes, breastfeeding consultations, and other education.
She’s excited to put her knowledge to work, reducing the infant mortality rate (IMR) in Cass County. According to the Indiana State Department of Health’s (ISDH) Division of Maternal and Child Health, Cass County’s rate was 18.2 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2015, the latest year data is available. The state IMR was 7.3 per 1,000 the same year, while the national IMR was 5.9 per 1,000.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Healthy People 2020 program sets a goal of reducing the infant mortality rate nationally to 6 per 1,000 births by 2020.
State Health Commissioner Kris Box called infant mortality “one of the most pressing health problems affecting the state.” According to the ISDH, about 600 Hoosier babies die each year before reaching their first birthday, the eighth highest infant mortality rate in the U.S. Data showed that a disproportionate number of those infants were African-American or Hispanic.
“I’ve always been interested in infant and maternal health,” Zepeda said, adding that she previously considered becoming a nurse. “Once I found the health sciences degree, I knew I wanted to work in the community, one-on-one, rather than in the clinical setting. This degree, and this job, are the right fit for me.”
She is based in the organization’s new Cass County office, set to open soon. It previously has served Saint Joseph, LaPorte, Elkhart, and Marshall counties, in northern Indiana. The expansion into Cass County was made possible by funding through Indiana’s Safety PIN (Protecting Indiana’s Newborns) grant program.
A great deal of the job is building trust with her clients, and understanding them. Being bilingual is part of that, but the rest is being compassionate and caring.
“It’s getting to know them on a personal level, and not judging them,” Zepeda said. “A lot of them come from very diverse communities. My classes really prepared me to understand diversity and how it affects the community as a whole, especially with health disparities.
Indiana University Kokomo serves north central Indiana.