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.

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Selected statistics

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.
Average birth weight of babies in 2009 born to Aboriginal mothers; of those born to non-Aboriginal mothers: 3.37 kg.
Times higher: The likelihood that Aboriginal babies have renal problems, compared to other babies.
Percentage of all births registered in 2020 that were to a First Nations woman.
3 – 5
Times higher: The probability that Aboriginal mothers die in childbirth, compared to non-Aboriginal mothers; factor for their babies: 2..3 times.
Factor by which Aboriginal women are more likely to give premature birth than other Australian mothers.
Factor by which the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) for Aboriginal babies is greater than for non-Indigenous babies . SIDS declined steadily since 1980 for non-Aboriginal mothers, but remained the same for Aboriginal mothers.
Number of Aboriginal midwives registered in Australia . Registered nurses and midwives in Australia more than 331,000.
Percentage of Aboriginal children who are breastfed at 6 months; same figure for non-Aboriginal kids: 16%.
Rate from 2010 to 2014 Aboriginal children were more likely to die from unintentional injuries (e.g. falls) than non-Aboriginal children.
Percentage of Aboriginal mothers who receive at least 5 check-ups during their pregnancy. Figure for all other mothers: 90%.

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 more statistics (if not referenced otherwise from the Indigenous Mothers and their Babies 2001-2004 report):

  • The fetal 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.
  • Babies born to Aboriginal mothers were twice as likely to be born prematurely as those to non-Aboriginal mothers.
  • 13% of babies born to Aboriginal 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. Babies weighing less than 2.5 kilograms are 20 times more likely to die within a year. In 2017, the average birth weight of babies born to Aboriginal mothers was 3,202 grams.
  • On average, Aboriginal mothers were 26 years old which is younger than non-Aboriginal women (32 years).
  • Numbers of Aboriginal teenage mothers decreased from 10% in 1991 to 8% in 2004. Their fertility rate is more than five times that of other teenagers.
  • Only 3% of Aboriginal mothers gave birth in private hospitals, compared to 32% of non-Aboriginal mothers.
  • To avoid being sent hundreds of kilometres away to Darwin to give birth, 10% of Aboriginal women in remote areas avoid the maternity system.
  • 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.
  • Immunisation: In 2016/17, about 92% of Aboriginal children aged 1 year were fully immunised, 89% of children aged 2 years and 96% of children aged 5 years. Children in remote areas are over 2 times more likely to be immunised that those in cities.
  • Aboriginal mothers are more likely to be in poor health. Undiagnosed rheumatic fever leaves them vulnerable to heart problems. Haemorrhages are more likely to cause severe problems, and they have more mental health-related problems.
  • The fertility rate is much higher: First Nations women have on average 2.25 babies while non-Aboriginal women have 1.58 babies. Rates are higher for women in remote areas.
  • In 2018, 7% of all births registered had one or both parents identify as Aboriginal.

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.

Adding folic acid (a B vitamin) to bread leads to 68% drop in serious birth defects among Aboriginal children.

Aboriginal mothers stop breastfeeding too early

Traditionally breastfeeding was common practice for Aboriginal women. The traditional way was to breastfeed for up to 4 years, sometimes longer, gradually introducing nutritious bush foods.

In 2016, 96% of non-Aboriginal mothers began breastfeeding at birth and 16% were still exclusively breastfeeding when their child was 6 months old, the period recommended by the World Health Organisation.

But less Aboriginal mothers breastfed at birth (83%), a percentage that dropped to 60% when the infant was 1 month old, and only 7% at 6 months. This is a trend that continues on since at least 2004.

The traditional influence shows in Aboriginal children aged less than 6 months in remote areas who were more than 1.5 times more likely to be breastfed than those who lived in other areas. They were also breastfeed almost twice as long as children in other areas.

The following video is the result of a community project with the Western Arrarnta people of Ntaria (Hermannsburg, NT) whose women wanted to reinforce the benefits of breastfeeding and educate their community and other Aboriginal people about the importance of breastfeeding. "Breast is best."

Mother-child health improves if Aboriginal communities deliver service

The New Directions: Mothers and Babies Services (NDMB) program, run by the Department of Health, but delivered mainly by Aboriginal community controlled health organisations, has helped improve the health of Aboriginal mothers and their children in "all areas" .

The program aims to increase access to child and maternal health care for Aboriginal families from antenatal care to immunisation and health and health checks for children before starting school.

Lisa Briggs, CEO of the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation, is enthusiastic about the program.

“It’s working. Mothers are seeking antenatal care earlier, recording higher birth weights, and getting better outcomes on health assessments for both children and their mothers," she said. The number of children under four years taking health assessments has doubled.

“This program is an excellent example of a program which is working.”

In 2014 it was working so well that people had to be turned away .

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 .

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 . 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 .

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 .

Experts say that the major causes are "poverty, poor housing, poor health care, poor educational and employment opportunities" . 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 . They are often treated by medical staff without specialised knowledge of maternity care .

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 .

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" .

"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 .

"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.


View article sources (24)

[1] Number crunch, Good Weekend, 5/11/2011 p.7
[2] [2a] 'Study is first of its kind', Koori Mail 517 p.48
[3] [3a] [3b] [3c] 'Births, Australia', Australian Bureau of Statistics 8/12/2021
[4] [4a] [4b] 'Births more deadly for Aboriginal mothers', The Australian 5/5/2013
[5] 'Message delivered', Koori Mail 463 p.15
[6] 'SIDS campaign aims to educate parents', Koori Mail 407 p.29
[7] 'Australia home to 331,000 registered nurses and midwives', Nursing Careers Allied Health, 19/4/2011
[8] [8a] [8b] 'New #VACCHO book celebrates breastfeeding in Aboriginal communities', NACCHO Aboriginal Health News Alerts 4/8/2016
[9] 'Indigenous children over-represented in accidental injuries and deaths', SMH 14/6/2019
[10] [10a] [10b] 'The perils of remote living', SMH 10/8/2013
[12] [12a] [12b] 'NACCHO health report card news: Aboriginal babies’ health improving, but concerns remain over immunisation', NACCHO Aboriginal Health News Alerts 19/6/2013
[13] [13a] 'Overview of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health status 2019', Australian Indigenous HealthInfoNet, 2020,
[14] 'Current Data - Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children', Australian Immunisation Register,, retrieved 29/6/2017
[15] 'Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adolescent and youth health and wellbeing – In Brief', Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2018, ISBN 9781760544386
[16] 'Aunty Melva: A non-stop worker for her people', Koori Mail 408 p.37
[17] 'Adding folic acid to bread leads to 68 per cent drop in serious birth defects among Aboriginal children', ABC PM 17/12/2015
[18] [18a] '4704.0 - The Health and Welfare of Australia's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples - Mothers' And Children's Health: Child Nutrition And Breastfeeding', Australian Bureau of Statistics, October 2010
[19] [19a] 'NACCHO Media Release: Invest more in Aboriginal health programs that work, say Aboriginal health services', NACCHO 12/12/2014
[20] Koori Mail 385, p.13
[21] [21a] 'New child care plan', Koori Mail 410 p.6
[22] [22a] 'Re-think call over child protection', Koori Mail 513 p.39
[23] 'Birthing best on country - researcher', Koori Mail 456 p.54
[24] [24a] [24b] 'More midwives to redress the balance', Reconciliation News 9/2010 p.13

Cite this page

Korff, J 2022, Aboriginal mothers and children, <>, retrieved 25 July 2024

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