Improving birth outcomes for at-risk moms by bringing whole-person health care into the home

During her sophomore year of high school, 15-year-old Skyy Muhammad was a busy, honor roll student and cheerleader. While she excelled in the classroom, few people knew the weight of worry she was carrying in secret. Skyy was pregnant, hiding her growing belly from friends and family under baggy clothes. 

“I thought I wasn’t going to have any help. I thought I probably wouldn’t go back to school after I had the baby,” Skyy said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, teen mothers are more likely to drop out of high school and face unemployment — and their children are more likely to have worse health outcomes than children born to older mothers. 

Skyy kept her secret until she was 35 weeks pregnant when she confided in her mother and sought help. To be sure Skyy received all the support she needed, her doctor referred her to the Healthier Moms and Babies program in Fort Wayne, Indiana. It was a critical connection, just in time.

“She came to us late. We had to line up services for her quickly to be sure she could have the healthiest pregnancy and delivery as possible,” said Irene Tillman, a case worker with Healthier Moms and Babies who does home visits with high-risk pregnant women and their families.

Healthier Moms and Babies received a $180,000 grant from UnitedHealthcare to support its prenatal home visitation program. The education provided during home visits focuses on the direct causes of infant mortality. Indiana ranks among the highest in the U.S. for infant mortality — 20% higher than the national average. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control, the leading causes of infant mortality are:

“Being in the home helps us serve women because we're getting a wide lens, not only into the life of the pregnant mother but also assessing what that situation is going to look like for that baby,” said Healthier Moms and Babies Program Director Jackie Martinez. “We make sure they have enough food; their living situation is safe and that they can get to medical appointments. If they need diapers, a crib or a car seat, we provide it.” 

The month before Skyy gave birth, Irene visited weekly to get the home ready for a baby and to help Skyy with a labor plan. On Christmas Day, 2021, Skyy gave birth to a healthy baby girl named Mila. She also gained a life-long friend in Irene. 

“Irene’s just a positive person to be around. It makes me happy when she visits. It feels good to have someone I could just talk to,” Skyy said. “I feel like if I had to go somewhere else, like to a doctor, I probably won't say as much stuff that I say to her.”

“A lot of my clients tell me they don't think the doctors listen. They think the doctors just come in, give them their exam and walk back out the door,” Irene said. “I teach them how to use their voice, to advocate for themselves. Don’t leave until you get the answers you need.”

Healthier Moms and Babies serves close to 800 women a year in Indiana. Case workers and registered nurses provide more than 3,700 home visits a year and the group says 93% of babies born with their support have a healthy outcome.  

“We’re building relationships. That's what really makes the Healthier Moms and Babies home visitation program unique,” Jackie said.

“To say I’m proud of Skyy is an understatement. I watched her maneuver being in online classes and taking care of a baby,” Irene said. “My first worry was that her schoolwork would suffer but I’ve seen her blossom.”

Skyy wants to finish school so she can go to college to become an anesthesiologist. She says Irene helps her stay motivated to work toward that goal. Their home visits now involve a lot of discussion about how Skyy can balance motherhood with a job and class work. The baby’s father is helping Skyy care for Mila and she has the support of her family. She also has Irene. The biweekly home visits will continue until Mila is 18 months old.

“It takes a village to raise a child,” Irene said. “I’ve always felt that a problem for someone else is not just their problem. It's the community’s problem. Because that individual, if they don't get the necessary help, it can become a problem for everyone.”

To learn more about Healthier Moms and Babies services, event and volunteer opportunities, visit their website.