Strong bonds grow at program for pregnant Somali women

Nurse Geni Sheikh gives a hug to Roda Mahamoud, expecting her first baby, during the Somali CenteringPregnancy program at the Neighborcare Health clinic in Columbia City. (Photo by Bettina Hansen for the Seattle Times)
Nurse Geni Sheikh gives a hug to Roda Mahamoud, expecting her first baby, during the Somali CenteringPregnancy program at the Neighborcare Health clinic in Columbia City. (Photo by Bettina Hansen for the Seattle Times)

The mysterious underwater rhythm of an in-utero heartbeat is the signature sound of prenatal checkups. When I was pregnant, it was a ritual I looked forward to.

Now, four months after the birth of my son, I’m hearing that amazing sound again, but in a very different setting. It’s coming from behind a folding screen in a room full of women wearing brightly colored headscarves and mingling over sweet chai tea.

I’m at a Somali “centering pregnancy” session at Neighborcare Health, a clinic for low-income people off Rainier Avenue South. It’s a new approach to prenatal care, and the first Somali-language program of its kind in the country. It’s also an attempt to innovatively address significant maternal and child health disparities in our Somali-American population.

“I thought it was fun you know? Sharing information with other women and experiencing the same thing with someone else,” says Ayan Ali, 32, who is six months pregnant and a member of the group. “You get more time than regular appointments, too; you get to ask a lot of questions and talk to other women.”

The program — founded by The Somali Health Board (a non-profit that works to address health disparities in the Somali community) with support from Seattle and King County Public Health and March of Dimes — has been running for two years

Women meet ten times over the course of their pregnancy, to discuss everything from fetal brain development to domestic abuse.

Though patients still consult privately with a health-care provider at the top of each session, they spend as much as an hour talking through issues and concerns in a group conversation facilitated by an obstetrician, a midwife, a Somali interpreter and nurses from The Somali Health Board.

“Fewer preterm deliveries, higher rates of successful breast-feeding, lower rates of postpartum depression,” says Dr. Alson Burke, an obstetrician with UW Medicine who serves as one of the facilitators, recounting the proven results from this kind of program. “So from the science side it’s supported, and also from the community side it feels good.”

That sense of community was strong during the session I visited. Things started off slowly (maybe due to the reporter and photographer in the room), but soon the dozen or so women were sharing tips on how to choose a pediatrician, and discussing how often your baby should poop.

And it’s clear the women are comfortable with each other (like when Burke asked “Where should your baby sleep?” and Ali joked “Outside!” to an eruption of laughter).

The group also serves as a way to dispel the misinformation that can circulate in a community of mothers navigating a new culture — for example, that formula is better for babies than breast milk, or that women shouldn’t be physically active during pregnancy.

“The idea is that we let the energy flow, let them get going,” says Burke about the ability of the group to come up with the right answers themselves. “Occasionally the facilitators will bounce in and correct or redirect, but ultimately the group does a really nice job of running itself and directing where they need to go.”

That self direction extends beyond the sessions themselves. Burke tells a story of two women from the group who were recently in the hospital at the same time — one for a delivery and the other due to a complication with her pregnancy. After a few texts, both were sharing in the food, family and support, helping to transform what could have been a frightening experience into one full of community.

“There’s a real sense of camaraderie, and I feel like that can be really lacking,” says Burke, who adds that pregnancy and new motherhood can be very isolating in the United States, especially if you’re new to the country. “Women realize they’re not alone.”

I started to feel a bit of that camaraderie myself as more experienced moms in the group shared some hard-earned lessons with a visiting newbie.

Ali, already a mother of seven, had advice that ran the gamut from infant (give them a bath and massage before bed to relax them to sleep) to teenager (friend them on Facebook but never comment on anything so you can successfully spy).

I can’t speak to the Facebook trick (yet) but I’ll tell you that bath trick is working like a charm.

This post has been updated since it was first published to include more information about the organizations behind 

Sarah Stuteville

Sarah Stuteville is a print and multimedia journalist. She’s a cofounder of The Seattle Globalist. Stuteville won the 2011 Sigma Delta Chi Award for magazine writing. She writes a weekly column on our region’s international connections that is shared by the Seattle Globalist and The Seattle Times and funded with a grant from Seattle International Foundation. Reach Sarah at
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