Health

Aboriginal mothers and children

Aboriginal mothers are younger and rarely give birth in private hospitals. Their babies are likely to be born prematurely and have low birth weight.

Selected statistic data

2
Factor by which the number of babies of Aboriginal mothers are more likely to be of low birth weight (less than 2,500 grams) compared to those of non-Aboriginal mothers.
3.169
Average birth weight of babies in 2009 born to Aboriginal mothers; of those born to non-Aboriginal mothers: 3.37 kg [10].
2
Factor by which Aboriginal women are more likely to give premature birth than other Australian mothers [7].
40
Times Aboriginal babies are more likely to have renal problems than other babies [7].
8
Factor by which the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) for Aboriginal babies is greater than for non-Indigenous babies [1]. SIDS declined steadily since 1980 for non-Aboriginal mothers, but remained the same for Aboriginal mothers [2].
3..5
Times Aboriginal mothers are more likely to die in childbirth compared to non-Aboriginal mothers; factor for their babies: 2..3 times [12].
<100
Number of Aboriginal midwives registered in Australia [12]. Registered nurses and midwives in Australia more than 331,000 [13].

Mother and baby statistics

An Aboriginal mother and her child. Aboriginal mothers on average are 24.8 years old when they give birth to their first child. Photo: k-girl, Flickr

Here are a few statistics (where not referenced otherwise from the Indigenous Mothers and their Babies 2001-2004 report [3]):

  • The foetal death rate of Aboriginal babies declined from 1.6% in 1991 to 1.1% in 2004. But the rate was still still double that of non-Aboriginal mothers. Infant mortality declined by 62% from 1991 to 2010 [14].
  • Babies born to Aboriginal mothers were twice as likely to be born prematurely as those to non-Aboriginal mothers.
  • 13% of babies born to Indigenous women were of low birth weight. Only 6% of non-Aboriginal babies were of low birth weight. Low birth weight is a key indicator of health status.
  • On average, Aboriginal mothers were 24.8 years old which is younger than non-Aboriginal women.
  • Numbers of Aboriginal teenage mothers decreased from 10% in 1991 to 8% in 2004.
  • Only 3% of Aboriginal mothers gave birth in private hospitals, compared to 32% of non-Aboriginal mothers.
  • Aboriginal mothers are 3 times more likely to have smoked during pregnancy as non-Aboriginal mothers. In 2011, 51.2% of women smoked, 14.8% drank alcohol and 15.9% used illicit drugs [14].
  • Immunisation: Only 70% of Aboriginal children aged 1-2 years, 68% of children aged 2-3 years and 56% of children aged 5-6 years are fully immunised. Children in remote areas are over 2 times more likely to be immunised that those in cities [14].

Fact In the 1950/60s at the Echuca Hospital, Victoria, Aboriginal women in labour were placed on the veranda to give birth, not inside the wards [4].

Aboriginal children at risk of emotional difficulties

In 2006 Dr Helen Milroy of the Palyku people of Pilbara, Western Australia, was Australia’s only Aboriginal psychiatrist. Her research found 24% of Aboriginal children aged 14-17 were at high risk of clinically significant emotional or behavioural difficulties compared with 15% in the non-Aboriginal population [5].

Children exposed to high stress events such as illness, family break-up, arrests or financial difficulties are most likely to be in this group. More than 1 in 5 children lived in families where there had been seven or more such high stress events in the preceding 12 months.

About 12% of these children were being looked after by a parent who had been forcibly removed from their natural family (Stolen Generations). 33% of these children were in the care of a sole parent.

Many experts agree that culture and a sense of belonging are vital for an Aboriginal child’s welfare and well-being [9]. Culturally appropriate childhood services are best to keep Aboriginal children connected to their community and culture. But only 4% of Aboriginal communities in the NT have access to childcare [9].

More Aboriginal kids in child care

Statistics show that more than 37% of children in state care in Queensland are Aboriginal while just 7% of people aged under 17 years are Aboriginal in that state [6].

Experts say that the major causes are “poverty, poor housing, poor health care, poor educational and employment opportunities” [6]. These factors are also more significant than race when child protection systems determine if children should be taken into care.

Birthing on country best for women

It is routine practice in all remote Northern Territory Aboriginal communities to transfer pregnant women into regional centres to wait for labour and give birth in hospital [8]. They are often treated by medical staff without specialised knowledge of maternity care [12].

The cultural needs of Aboriginal women are very different to other women. Research suggests that birthing on country is better as it strengthens Aboriginal women’s business and supports their cultural obligations.

Many Aboriginal women distrust the mainstream hospital system because they have a fear of prejudice and of being judged so they choose not to go [11].

Many hospitals have an Aboriginal liaison person but sometimes this person is a man, who can’t be involved in women’s business.

A close relationship with a midwife helps reduce Aboriginal peri-natal mortality which is “well above the average” [11].

“Traditionally Aboriginal women gave birth on country with other women around them, and there are important ceremonies that take place outside on country that welcome the child into the world,” says Aboriginal midwife student Tanya Bonner [11].

“Now, in isolated communities the women are flown to a regional hospital at 36 weeks into their pregnancy and have to stay in accommodation in town without their extended family until they give birth in the nearby hospital.

“The women feel they have no choice, and if babies aren’t born on country they lose some of their link to the land.”

Traditional birthing practices could also be invigorated if women gave birth where they live.

Footnotes

Article sources (14)

[1] 'Message delivered', Koori Mail 463 p.15
[2] 'SIDS campaign aims to educate parents', Koori Mail 407 p.29
[3] http://www.aihw.gov.au/publication-detail/?id=6442468038
[4] 'Aunty Melva: A non-stop worker for her people', Koori Mail 408 p.37
[5] Koori Mail 385, p.13
[6] 'Re-think call over child protection', Koori Mail 513 p.39
[7] 'Study is first of its kind', Koori Mail 517 p.48
[8] 'Birthing best on country - researcher', Koori Mail 456 p.54
[9] 'New child care plan', Koori Mail 410 p.6
[10] Number crunch, Good Weekend, 5/11/2011 p.7
[11] 'More midwives to redress the balance', Reconciliation News 9/2010 p.13
[12] 'Births more deadly for Aboriginal mothers', The Australian 5/5/2013
[13] 'Australia home to 331,000 registered nurses and midwives', Nursing Careers Allied Health, 19/4/2011
[14] 'NACCHO health report card news: Aboriginal babies’ health improving, but concerns remain over immunisation', NACCHO Aboriginal Health News Alerts 19/6/2013