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Study: Babies getting off to a better start

Progress is reported on the health of babies in Florida, but some troubling trends remain.


© St. Petersburg Times, published February 20, 2001

A smaller share of pregnant women in Florida are smoking during pregnancy, and a bigger percentage are getting prenatal care, according to a new study.

Those trends over the past decade go hand in hand with healthy babies, so experts on children were applauding Monday.

"I think it's wonderful and probably due to education," Gail Robertson, executive director of the agency that licenses day care homes in Pinellas County, said of the findings on smokers. "That's real positive."

The number of mothers in Florida who smoked during pregnancy dropped from 18.3 percent in 1990 to 11.2 percent in 1998, and the figures dropped nationwide as well. The number of women who received late or no prenatal care dropped from 7.1 percent in 1990 to 3.5 percent in 1998.

But the study also found that more babies are being born to single mothers, a trend some experts find troubling, because it means some children may receive less financial and emotional support.

The study also comes at a time when spending on some programs designed to promote healthy babies are coming under the threat of budget cuts in Florida.

"The very services I'm complimenting as being Florida's best investments in the health of babies are by every estimation those which are on the cut list being proposed by the governor's budget," said Jack Levine of the Center for Florida's Children, and perhaps Florida's best-known child advocate.

"The Right Start" study was compiled by the research firm Child Trends and the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a non-profit, Baltimore-based group that also regularly examines the state of American children in a report called Kids Count.

The report examined several factors that can present health problems or other risks for babies, and found many declined during the years covered in the report: 1990 to 1998.

Among the findings in Florida: The percentage of teenage mothers who gave birth to a second child declined from 26.2 percent in 1990 to 22.5 percent in 1998. Teen parenting and especially repeat teen parenting are statistically more likely to lead to impoverished families.

Proper prenatal care is considered essential because it lets expectant mothers help their yet-to-be born children with proper nutrition, sound medical advice, and by avoiding alcohol drugs and tobacco. That's why many children's advocates were pleased to see that in Florida and the nation a greater percentage of pregnant women are receiving this type of care.

Levine said the study "confirms without a doubt" Florida's investment in Healthy Start, a program that set up local boards across Florida during the 1990s that increased prenatal care and are believed to have helped decrease infant mortality.

But Healthy Start faces a $1.5-million cut statewide, and Levine said Gov. Jeb Bush's budget also calls for a change that would reduce the number of pregnant women eligible for Medicaid.

Debra Bara, executive director of Pinellas County's Healthy Start Coalition, said the smoking numbers are welcome news, but more must be done because smoking poses such risks for the fetus. "I think that if we could completely get women to not smoke at least during the time that they're pregnant, that could have a huge overall health benefit."

Levine said other data indicate the increase in the percentage of single mothers giving birth comes largely from adult white women, not teenagers. He says "the concept of having single-parent households by design, by intention is both unfair to the child economically and may have negative implications emotionally."

The percentage of babies considered "low birthweight," defined as under 5.5 pounds, inched up from 7.4 percent to 8.1 percent in Florida.

On most indicators, the nationwide trends pointed in the same direction as Florida's, the report said.

- Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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