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In the Nation's Capital, A Positive Model for Childbirth

Molly M. Ginty | 4/12/2011, 4:40 p.m.

When Joan Brickhouse had her third son, no uniformed hospital staff scurried through her room. No noisy machines beeped endlessly. She was not confined to a hospital room or bed, for that matter.

Instead, Brickhouse rested on gold and maroon cushions--then swayed back and forth in a rocking chair--as she pushed and gritted her teeth through labor.

Brickhouse delivered her son Jalen at the Developing Families Center in Washington, D.C., where women's health activists have created the city's only freestanding birth center--plus a parenting program and a preschool and daycare center. By offering one-stop, continuous care from expectant motherhood through the pre-school years, it is unique in its scope, scale and outcome.

Together, these three programs bring streamlined services to African-American mothers like Brickhouse, who are statistically more likely to have premature births, low birthweight babies, C-sections, and be more reluctant to breastfeed. But women who deliver here have birth statistics far better than regional statistics. For example, in 2005, the rate for pre-term births in the D.C. area was 24 percent, but only 7 percent for DFC births. Only six percent of DFC deliveries were low birth weight compared to 14.2 percent of births in the District.

Opened in 2000 by nurse-midwife Ruth Watson Lubic with government support and a MacArthur Foundation grant, the Developing Families Center sits a top a hill in D.C.'s Ward Five. Its cheerful lavender facade--a color chosen by a neighborhood survey--provides a colorful standout from nearby housing projects and storefront churches.

Behind its glass doors, the 15,600 square feet interior provides parenting classes at the Healthy Babies Project; prenatal care at the Family Health and Birth Center; preschool at the United Planning Organization Early Childhood Development Center.

The environment reflects the thousands of women it serves each year. Most of the 60 staffers are women of color. Photos of Alvin Ailey dancers and African sculptures line the walls. The waiting room hosts a mural of a black mother breastfeeding beneath a crescent moon.

But mainly there is the personalized, family-friendly quality of the services, which Lubic says benefits the entire surrounding community that the center servers.

Up to 15 friends and relatives can attend a single delivery at the DFC.

"When a child is born surrounded by loved ones and supportive caregivers, everyone who witnesses that birth--and everyone who holds that baby--forges a bond with the child," says Lubic. "This helps build community. And strengthening community is our ultimate aim."

Lisa Uncles, the birth center's director of midwifery, says that during a woman's initial appointment, she sits with staff members for about an hour, "to tell us who she is and what she needs."

Keishawn Williams, 22, is preparing to deliver a child at the center in November,

"Here, I feel I'll have a better support team than I would at the hospital," she says. "I'm looking forward to inviting the people who I love to come to my baby's birth."

Molly M. Ginty is a freelance writer based in New York City.