The city of Milwaukee and Ascension Columbia St. Mary's Urban Church Wellness Program came together Tuesday to celebrate the lowest infant mortality rate in years.
In 2016, just 88 infants died before their first birthday. It's the second lowest number on record for the city.
"Since I've been mayor, we've seen a 24 percent decrease in infant mortalities," Mayor Tom Barrett said. "This is something where we can have a significant impact and I know we already have had a significant impact in reducing the number of babies that don't reach their first birthday."
The Milwaukee County Medical Examiner says the office is investigating two more infant deaths due to unsafe sleeping environments. This brings the city's total to 24 infant deaths this year already. However, unsafe sleeping conditions are just one of many concerns.
"For every infant death that occurs because of an unsafe sleeping situation, we could have up to four babies dying from complications of prematurity," Barrett said. "Dealing with those issues of prematurity, which are complicated, is what we're trying to do."
Unsafe sleep conditions are a concern but in Milwaukee more than three and a half times more infants die from premature birth conditions.
"Some babies die due to unsafe sleep but the vast majority are not due to safe sleep," said Wanda Montgomery, Director of Community Partnerships for Children's Hospital. "A lot of this can be prevented. Prematurity, we can work on supporting families so babies aren't born premature."
For every 1,000 live births, there were nine deaths between 2014 and 2016. It's the lowest average they've seen in recent memory but some numbers are still staggering. While Hispanic and Black families saw a decrease in number of infant deaths, Black families are still nearly three times as likely to suffer from an infant death than families of other races.
"It has a lot to do with poverty, healthcare disparities and a lot of stress that poverty brings on," said Julia Means, with Columbia St. Mary's Hospital. "We know that support, encouragement and education can prevent infant mortality."
To help lower the number even more, 23 churches are lending their help as a part of the Strong Baby Sanctuary campaign. The churches offer a safe space for pregnant women, new mothers, fathers and families to get health-related support and information.
For Tonda Thompson, she is hoping to share her story to prevent any family from going through what she did. Her son went to full term but died 17 hours after birth.
"In the first five minutes of meeting him, they were telling me he wasn't going to live," Thompson said. "I only got to hold my son for five minutes. It was tough."
Thompson is helping spread the word on the Strong Baby Sanctuaries. She says these can help pregnant women living in poverty get the care they need.
"These churches are deep in their neighborhoods where they can walk down the block and say, I need help with this," Thompson said. "I need diapers. Can you teach me to breastfeed? These churches are right in their communities. They have easy access to help."
The churches can offer prenatal care and other services families may not be able to afford. It's all an effort to bring the mortality rate down even lower.
"Those rates are too high," Means said. "They are higher than a third world country. We are going to bring it down. We will do it. That's the goal."
"This is all about giving a baby a chance to blow the candles out on her first birthday cake," Barrett said. "It's a simple goal, but that's the goal we're focusing on."
The following churches offer Strong Baby Sanctuaries:
Ascension Fellowship Church
4925 N 24th Pl, Milwaukee, WI 53209
Bethel Temple Church of God in Christ
2568 N 5th St, Milwaukee, WI 53212
Bradford Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Church
4260 N Teutonia Ave, Milwaukee, WI 53209
Calvary Baptist Church
2959 N Teutonia Ave, Milwaukee, WI 53206
Canaan Baptist Church
2964 N 11th St, Milwaukee, WI 53206
Capuchin Community Services - House of Peace
1702 W Walnut St, Milwaukee, WI 53205
Christ Mission Christian Methodist Episcopal Church
1603 W Clarke St, Milwaukee, WI 53206
East Side Catholic Churches - St. Hedwig Church
1702 N Humboldt Ave, Milwaukee, WI 53202
Ebenezer Church of God in Christ
3132 N Dr. Martin Luther King Dr, Milwaukee, WI 53212
For Him International Ministries
6416 W Capitol Dr, Milwaukee, WI 53216
God's Hands Outreach Ministry
6151 N Sherman Blvd. Milwaukee, WI 53209
Greater Bethlehem Temple World Ministries
222 East Center St Milwaukee, WI 53212
Hephatha Lutheran Church
1720 W Locust St, Milwaukee, WI 53206
Holy Cathedral Church of God in Christ
2677 N 40th St, Milwaukee, WI 53210
House of Mercy Evangelistic Ministries
4563 N Hopkins St, Milwaukee, WI 53209
Lamb of God Missionary Baptist Church
8415 W Bradley Rd, Milwaukee, WI 53224
Silver Spring Neighborhood Center
5460 N 64th St, Milwaukee, WI 53218
St. Matthew Christian Methodist Episcopal Church
2944 N 9th St, Milwaukee, WI 53206
True Love Missionary Baptist Church
210 W Keefe Ave, Milwaukee, WI 53212
Unity Gospel House of Prayer Apostolic Church
1747 N 12th St, Milwaukee, WI 53205
Unity Evangelical Lutheran Church
1025 E Oklahoma Ave, Milwaukee, WI 53207
Village Ministry Inc.
2614 W Center St, Milwaukee, WI 53206