Poor, immigrant women are giving birth to healthier babies than are wealthier white women in the United States.
This discovery, described as a "public health enigma", overturns a popular prejudice that poor, immigrant women were more likely to give birth to underweight or unhealthy babies.
The enigma was most striking among Vietnamese and Cambodian women. They had the lowest infant death rates, at 5.5 and 5.8 per 1,000 respectively, yet they also recorded the highest incidences of poverty, unemployment, welfare dependency, previous infant deaths and late prenatal care.
The death rate among American white women stands at around eight per 1,000 births.
Also faring better than the American women were the mothers from Southeast Asia with a 6.6 deaths per 1,000, and the Hispanics with a rate of 7.3.
These discoveries were made by two sociologists, Ruben Rumbaut from Michigan State University and John Weeks from San Diego State University. They were first alerted to the enigma when they studied hundreds of thousands of birth records in Southern California; the findings were repeated when they spread their research to the whole state.
However, the enigma begins to unfold when sociological data are included. While white Americans did enjoy higher levels of employment, education and income, were taller, heavier and gained more weight during pregnancy, they also had more abortions, ate fewer fruits and cereals and more fats and dairy, suffered more sexually transmitted diseases, smoked, had histories of drug and alcohol abuse, and suffered more from depression.
The researchers concluded that all the socioeconomic advantages of the American women were more than outweighed by their lifestyles. From that, they have drawn a profile which shows the characteristics most likely to produce a less healthy baby. Mothers who were older, had a surgically scarred uterus, gained excess weight, consumed more than average amounts of protein, and drank or took drugs during pregnancy increased the risks of producing an unhealthy infant. (JAMA, December 21, 1994).
Home births are safe for most women and some may fare worse in hospital, a report by the National Perinatal Epidemiology Unit in Britain has concluded.