East End Birth Network Expands Reach

Ana Carillo at CMEE. DANA SHAW

It’s a known fact that the United States lags behind other wealthy countries when it comes to infant mortality rates. But perhaps lesser known is that in parts of the East End, an infant is on average nearly twice as likely to die before its first birthday than in the rest of Suffolk County.

With this in mind, the East End Birth Network, a local nonprofit, is working to provide more support for parents, mothers and families on the East End.

This summer, it has launched two new birth circles: Grupo de Nacimiento, a monthly Spanish-speaking birth circle held at the Children’s Museum of the East End in Bridgehampton, and a Shinnecock Birth Circle, in partnership with Wuttahminneoh Birth Work on the Shinnecock Indian Reservation.

“That was jaw-dropping to all of us, basically,” said Sara Topping, executive director of the East End Birth Network, of the higher-than-average infant mortality rates reported for some East End zip codes in the Suffolk County Department of Health Services Community Health Assessment for 2014 to 2017. “This is a very tangible issue in our hometown, so let’s really try to address this.”

It was Springs local Ana Carillo, 36, who came up with the idea for a Spanish-speaking birth circle. During her first pregnancy two years ago, she regularly attended the group’s birth circles and ultimately decided to have a home birth. When she informed her Venezuelan family of her decision, they thought that meant she was going back home — to Venezuela, nearly 2,500 miles away.

That encounter not only made Ms. Carillo feel fortunate that she spoke English, she said, but it reinforced for her that there was little information available to the Spanish-speaking community on the East End.

“I was really lucky that I learned the language,” Ms. Carillo said in a telephone interview, explaining that she was able to make informed decisions about her pregnancy and birth thanks in part to the East End Birth Network. “I was able to communicate and have a lot of research … That’s the thing: The information is not very much available for the Spanish community.”

Grupo de Nacimiento, led by Ms. Carillo, will aim to bridge this gap. It will serve as a supportive place where parents can share their experiences and rely on one another throughout pregnancy, birth and early parenthood.

And it appears the first birth circle held in June was just that for the mother-to-be who showed up. They discussed several topics, from hospital visitation permissions to home births and the importance of having a doula, a birth companion that supports women during labor. Ms. Carillo said she also shared information about the breast pump she personally used during her first pregnancy, as well as how to submit information to insurance companies for proper reimbursement.

“I sent her as much information so she [can] have a good journey as a mom,” said Ms. Carillo, who is currently pregnant with her second child.

The two women have even kept in touch since their first meeting, leaning on one another for support. “We’ve been talking a lot and it is sort of, like, we are trying to get to know each other,” Ms. Carillo said. “She’s going to be a new mom, and I am giving her the tips that I have.

“Sometimes you can feel alone even though you have a whole family helping you out,” she added.

Ahna Cuffee, 23, a recently certified full-spectrum indigenous doula, is leading the monthly Shinnecock Birth Circle, where she hopes the gatherings educate women to ensure “they’re basically confident that they feel safe and loved going into their sacred time,” she said in a telephone interview. The support group will incorporate indigenous teachings, songs and ceremonies, and will also serve as a place where women can share their stories and hear others’ experiences.

“I turned my traumatic birth experience into a teaching moment, and I wanted to become an advocate so that other indigenous women and minority women didn’t have to have a traumatic birth experience like I did,” said Ms. Cuffee.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that black and American Indian/Alaska Native women are about three times as likely to die than white women from pregnancy-related causes, and their babies are nearly twice as likely to die within their first year of life.

“I just hope to … create more of a womanhood, and just like a unification of women,” Ms. Cuffee said.

While Ms. Topping is thrilled about the new birth circles, she said these sobering figures shed light on access to care issues on the East End.

“People are pigeonholed into certain access where they are not necessarily getting everything they need,” she said, comparing the situation to shopping at a single grocery store for all items. “You’re going to be lacking in something, somewhere along the way.”
On top of that, obstetrician appointments are generally short, she said, which can leave women with many questions.

For Emily Tyson, 38, of Hampton Bays, who is a schoolteacher in Sag Harbor, the monthly birth circles helped answer many of her questions during her first pregnancy. Like Ms. Carillo, she ultimately decided to have a home birth.

“Meeting these other women gave me all these positive birth stories and experiences,” Ms. Tyson said, noting that she left the gatherings feeling empowered instead of intimidated. “No matter where you are in your journey … it’s such a great place to go and meet people and share from your heart.”

Grupo de Nacimiento is held the second Thursday of every month at the Children’s Museum of the East End in Bridgehampton and the Shinnecock Birth Circle is held on the fourth Wednesday of every month at Raindrop’s Café on Montauk Highway in Southampton.