Objective: Research suggests that exposure to racism partially explains why African American women are 2 to 3 times more likely to deliver low birth weight and preterm infants. However, the physiological pathways by which racism exerts these effects are unclear. This study examined how lifetime exposure to racism, in combination with maternal blood pressure changes during pregnancy, was associated with fetal growth.
Methods: African American pregnant women (n = 39) reported exposure to childhood and adulthood racism in several life domains (e.g., at school, at work), which were experienced directly or indirectly, meaning vicariously experienced when someone close to them was treated unfairly. A research nurse measured maternal blood pressure at 18 to 20 and 30 to 32 weeks gestation. Standardized questionnaires and trained interviewers assessed maternal demographics. Neonatal length of gestation and birth weight data were collected from medical charts.
Results: Childhood racism interacted with diastolic blood pressure to predict birth weight. Specifically, women with two or more domains of indirect exposure to racism in childhood and increases in diastolic blood pressure between 18 and 32 weeks had lower gestational age adjusted birth weight than the other women. A similar pattern was found for direct exposure to racism in childhood.
Conclusions: Increases in diastolic blood pressure between the second and third trimesters predicted lower birth weight, but only when racism exposure in childhood (direct or indirect) was relatively high. Understanding pregnant African American women's lifetime direct and indirect experiences with racism in combination with prenatal blood pressure may improve identification of highest risk subgroups within this population.
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