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Pediatrician examines a baby

A pediatrician examines a newborn baby in her clinic in Chicago on Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2019. A new program for West Side families hopes to improve their health and add years to their lives by focusing on the needs of babies and their parents.

Amr Alfiky

A new program for West Side families wants to help in the tough first year of babies’ lives

A new program for West Side families hopes to improve their health and add years to their lives by focusing on the needs of babies and their parents.

West Side Healthy Parents & Babies connect mothers from the time they’re pregnant to one year postpartum with a variety of services they might need that already exist. They can range from needing a lactation consultant to help with breastfeeding, or finding an apartment.

“We do not want to recreate the wheel,” said Dr. Mariana Glusman, a pediatrician at Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago and medical director for the Schreiber Family Center for Early Childhood Health and Wellness who is involved in the program. “There’s no need for us to start new programs when there are some wonderful programs that already exist, but that unfortunately sometimes people have difficulty accessing.”

The free program is a partnership between West Side United and Lurie Children’s. West Side United is an organization that collaborates with half a dozen hospital systems to help erase the life expectancy gap between the Loop downtown and 10 neighborhoods on the West Side. The gap is up to 14 years in some areas.

Ayesha Jaco, executive director of West Side United, ticks off a list of what’s fueling that gap: heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, homicide, cancer, infant mortality, opioid overdoses.

West Side Healthy Parents & Babies aims to help chip away at the gap. Newborns on the West Side tend to be born preterm, or before 37 weeks, more than babies born in other parts of the city, public health data shows. Austin and West Town on the West Side for example, have the most babies born prematurely than in any other community in Chicago.

Being born too early is linked to higher rates of death, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Babies who survive may have to stay in the hospital longer and could have serious health problems later in life, according to the March of Dimes, a nonprofit that advocates for moms and babies and researches maternal health. Those potential problems include everything from developing asthma or depression to having trouble fighting off infections.

March of Dimes gave Illinois a D+ for its preterm birth rate of nearly 11% in 2022. The rate was highest among Black babies.

The Healthy Parents & Babies Program is focused on families who live in 10 West Side ZIP codes, no matter the parents’ income. Katelyn Kanwischer, director of maternal and child health initiatives at Lurie Children’s, explained how they worked with a parent who couldn’t get help breastfeeding for at least a month — despite the fact that newborns need to eat every two to three hours. Healthy Parents & Babies was able to help her the next day.

“That was a huge win for us because that’s what we’re hoping to do is fill in the gaps and where the challenges are,” Kanwischer said.

There’s a parent support group in English and Spanish, and the program has helped get travel cribs for families who are staying in shelters and safe areas where their children can sleep there while trying to find them permanent housing.

Kanwischer anticipates people might need connections to a variety of services. A community doula, for example, to help advocate during pregnancy and delivery, or treatment for substance use or domestic violence support. There are already several home-visiting programs that can help families, Kanwischer said, but navigating which ones they qualify for and then getting a spot during a workforce shortage can be overwhelming. The program aims to help them find what’s out there.

“We want to make sure that nobody sits on a waitlist, ” Kanwischer said.

Glusman said the program is funded in part with philanthropic dollars. So far they are spreading awareness through word of mouth and through long-standing relationships that Healthy Parents & Babies has already started.

Families interested in applying can get more information from the program website.

Kristen Schorsch covers public health and Cook County for WBEZ. Follow @kschorsch.

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