‘Normal’ Not Good Enough for Babies of Color

Download Files Jul 24, 2020

Disparities in the first three years can have serious, life-long consequences for future success in school and life.

By now, you’ve no doubt heard the words ‘new normal’ used to describe life under COVID-19. Yes, the description is useful and mostly accurate—the current pandemic and subsequent economic crisis has spared no one—but for babies, what did ‘normal’ mean before COVID-19, and what does it mean now?

Last year, we learned that the norm for a baby born in one state can dramatically differ from that of a baby born in another. What is ‘normal’ at the highest level—the average experience of a baby in this country—fails to tell the story of every young child. And many of these differences uncover disparities in the first three years that can have serious, life-long consequences for future success in school and life.

The latest State of Babies Yearbook: 2020 data reveal yet another set of ‘normals’: even within states with high averages on key indicators of well-being, babies of color—along with babies in families with low-income and those living in rural areas—often face circumstances that can undermine their unlimited potential. These disparities are the real story of America’s babies, and they underscore that ’normal’ is not acceptable. What they reveal is fundamental to ongoing conversations about systemic inequities and key to crafting policy solutions that can live up to the nation’s promise of opportunity for all.

To better understand the ‘new normal’ for babies of color and prepare a way forward, we need to step back and examine the ‘old normal’.

‘Normal’ Disparities in Birth Outcomes, Maternal Health

A strong start has ‘Good Health’ written all over it. One of 3 domains in SOBY2020, Good Health includes indicators of physical and mental wellness that lay the groundwork for physical, cognitive, emotional, and social development. Examined by race/ethnicity, various Good Health indicators reveal stark disparities, present even before birth, that can undermine development throughout the early years.

  • Preterm Birth—nationally, the preterm birth rate is 55 percent higher for Black women (14.1 percent) than for White women (9.1 percent); the rate for Hispanic Women (9.7 percent) is 7 percent higher than for White women.

  • Low Birthweight—nationally, the risk for low-weight births is more than twice as high for Black women (14.1 percent) as it is for White women (6.9 percent); the risk for low-weight births is 9 percent higher for Hispanic Women (7.5 percent) than for White women.

  • Infant Mortality—nationally, mortality is more than twice as high for Black infants (11.1 per 1,000 births) than White infants (4.8); the rate is slightly higher for Hispanic infants (5) than for White infants.

  • Maternal Mortality—nationally, maternal mortality is more than three times higher for Black women (40.8 per 100,000 live births) than White women (13.2).

‘Normal’ Disparities in Housing, Stability

Context matters. Babies’ growth is best nurtured within stable, supportive relationships that allow them to flourish and meet their full potential—that’s what we mean by Strong Families, the second of three domains in SOBY2020. Because of historical and structural inequalities, children of color are more likely to be poor and to live in environments that challenge their families’ security. Furthermore, young infants and toddlers of color are disproportionately represented in the child welfare system and have different permanency outcomes than their white peers*. Two indicators in the Strong Families domain demonstrate how different these experiences can be for children of color.

  • Crowded Housing—Nationally, Hispanic babies (29 percent) are more than three times as likely than white babies (7.6 percent) to live in crowded housing; the rate for Black babies (17.6 percent) is twice that for White babies.

  • Out-of-Home Placement—Nationally, the proportion of Black babies (23.4 percent) in the child welfare system who spend 1 year or more in out-of-home placement is 25 percent higher than White babies (18.7 percent).

‘Normal’ Disparities in Access to Critical Supports

‘Potential’ speaks to something yet-to-be realized, and Positive Early Learning Experiences—the last domain in SOBY 2020—are critical to helping babies fully develop their abilities. Because they are more likely to work in lower paying positions and live in child care deserts, parents of color are less likely to find affordable child care and have access to quality care settings with the positive, one-on-one interactions their babies need. Supports for Good Health also matter. Even before birth, pregnant women need access to healthcare that prevents potential health and developmental problems and promotes the well-being of both mother and child. SOBY2020 data demonstrate access to these crucial services and supports vary by race/ethnicity.

  • Prenatal Care—Nationally, Black women (9.9 percent) are almost twice as likely to receive late or no prenatal care than White women (4.5 percent); Hispanic women (7.7 percent) exceed White women’s rate of late or no prenatal care as well.

  • Vaccinations—Nationally, Black infants and toddlers (66.5 percent) are significantly less likely to have received all recommended vaccinations as White infants and toddlers (71.5 percent).

Overcoming What’s ‘Normal’

The data are clear: even before COVID-19, babies of color were more likely to face economic adversity and less likely to get preventive health services; they and their mothers were also much more likely to have adverse birth outcomes. The recent national resurgence in COVID-19 infection rates means an even longer road to recovery for parents and babies of color: data from the CDC reveal that after adjusting for age, Black persons are 5 times more likely and Hispanic persons are over 4 times more likely to be hospitalized from COVID-19, compared to White persons. Data from the Census Bureau show that Black and Hispanic households are much more likely than White households to have lost employment income, worry about their next rent payment, or experienced food insufficiency—all areas of concern for babies and families of color in the ‘old normal.’

What to do then about these ‘normals’, old and new? Just as disparities emerge from close examination of data, our policy makers must take care to craft solutions that ensure a strong start for all babies, regardless of background. Elected officials need to acknowledge and address the deep history and role of racism in existing inequities and ensure systems serving young children and their caregivers promote equitable access to Good Health, Strong Families, and Positive Early Learning Experiences. When it comes to babies, there can be no compromise. The stakes are too high.

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*Quality Improvement Center for Research-Based Infant-Toddler Court Teams. (n.d.). Advancing Equitable Outcomes for Infants and Toddlers Involved in Child Welfare. Retrieved from

Wulcyzn, F., & Lery, B. (2007). Racial Disparity in Foster Care Admissions. Retrieved from Racial_disparity_in_foster_care_admissions