Mamas on Bedrest: A Strong Family Cultural Identification Predicts Low Birthweight and Childhood Asthma

January 3rd, 2013

First and foremost, Happy New Year Mamas!

It is my pleasure to step into 2013 by sharing with you all some fascinating-albeit not that surprising-data from one of my favorite researchers, Cleopatra Abdou, PhD. Dr. Abdou is an assistant professor at the USC Davis School of Gerontology in Southern California. She studies the associations between culture and health.

In this current study, Dr. Abdou and her colleagues sought to discover if a strong cultural belief in family had any effect on the birth weight and subsequent health (in this case asthma expression) of infants born to low income mothers. Abdou and her colleagues studied 4633 African American, Latina American and White American women and their babies through their pregnancies and for 3 years  post partum. The researchers looked at the infants’ initial birth weights and subsequent asthma development/expression. Abdou and her colleagues found that very low birth weight infants were at increased risk of developing asthma in the first 3 years of life. This in and of itself was not surprising. It is a well established fact that babies born early have an increased risk of developing chronic health issues throughout their lives. Additionally, infants born to mothers of very low socioeconomic status are at increase risk of being born at a low birth weight. However, what was surprising in this study was that infants born to mothers with a strong cultural belief in family-regardless of their own family ties or current level of familial support-tended to be of higher birth weight, fared better overall and as a result were less likely to develop asthma later on.

These results were interesting to say the least. Abdou and her colleagues were able to show that an “intangible” cultural belief is strong enough to have a physiologic impact on maternal and infant health. In mothers who held strong beliefs in “traditional” family roles and responsibility, i.e. you do whatever it takes to maintain the health and well being of the family, these women, regardless of their socioeconomic status or current familial support had better birth outcome, i.e. larger birth weight babies.

Abdou’s findings added clarity to the so-called “Hispanic Paradox” or “epidemiologic paradox.” First documented in 1986 by Markides and Coreil, these researchers found that immigrant populations in the United States tend to be relatively healthy compared to their peers, despite being poorer. This recent data supports this paradox and also helps to explain why the paradox diminishes over time as immigrants assimilate into American Culture. To sum up, when immigrants or Americans of different ethnicities, African Americans and Latina Americans, maintain strong cultural ties to their “mother lands” they tend to have better birth outcomes and are healthier-even if they are poorer. This effect wanes as the families become more “Americanized”.

As Abdou notes in her publication, this cultural familism could play a significant role in the health and well being of low income families. Familism is readily available to women in the form of mothers, grandmothers, aunties and other older female relatives. I a woman is able to draw on her heritage, her positive cultural upbringing and beliefs around family, she may be able to give herself and her family a distinct health edge.


Cleopatra M. Abdou, Tyan Parker Dominguez, Hector F. Myers. Maternal familism predicts birthweight and asthma symptoms three years later. Social Science & Medicine, 2012; DOI: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2012.07.041

3 responses to “Mamas on Bedrest: A Strong Family Cultural Identification Predicts Low Birthweight and Childhood Asthma”

  1. Jeanette says:

    Darline: Thanks for sharing this – very interesting look at how the perception of family and support impacts the well being of mothers and babies.

  2. Darline says:

    Yes Jeanette, we in the birth world are so aware of this and yet, science seems to be just catching up with what we have alsways intuitively known. I just hope that we can learn from this information and use it to not only support women their reproductive years, but throughout their lives (and their children’s as well).

  3. Darline says:

    We also have to recognize cultural legacies have an impact on health. People with strong, positive cultural legacies are able to draw on this legacy for strength, guidance and support even in the absence of family being physically present. Take a look at my follow up post to this publication as I look at the “Epidemiologic Paradox” in light of African Americans and the American Slave Trade. Lots to think about not only in the health of mothers and babies, but the health of African Americans in general.

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