Indigenous midwifery program strives to close the gap in infant mortality and birth complications

When Kelsey Muhl’s midwife caught her new baby in a hospital shower, it was a moment shared between two women who had built a relationship over months.

“Gravity helped,” Ms Muhl said, laughing at her 4.6kg baby girl, Emilia, now six weeks old.

The mother-of-three described her latest birth as a world away from her previous experiences.

“With my previous births, it was very different,” she said. “You just have to give birth.

“But having a familiar face just helped me have that connection and that feeling of support.

Ms. Muhl and her midwife, Storm Henry, are part of a program that matches First Nations mothers with midwives throughout their pregnancy, birth and the first days of a baby’s life.

“We come from a culture where connection is huge, so it helped me feel very supported throughout my pregnancy,” Ms Muhl said.

About one in 10 Australian mothers choose to have a single midwife, or caseload midwife, throughout their pregnancy, but for First Nations mothers of babies that rate has historically been much higher. weak.

“We know that when women have a primary midwife or continuity of care model, birth complications are reduced,” said Helen McLachlan, a professor at La Trobe University.

“Babies are less likely to get sick, mothers are less likely to need caesareans.”

Closing the healthy birth gap

More than 18,000 First Nations babies are born each year in this country.

These babies are at a higher risk of arriving early, being born underweight or needing special care.

“Results for [First Nations] mothers and babies are about twice as bad as non-Aboriginal mothers and babies – double the premature birth rate, almost triple the maternal mortality rate,” Prof McLachlan said.

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 13% of Indigenous babies were born underweight in 2019.

Reducing this number is a key objective of the Closing the Gap agreement.

Helen McLachlan says First Nations mothers are statistically much more likely to have negative birth outcomes.(ABC News: Nicole Asher)

A new culturally safe program run by the University of Latrobe and the Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organization seeks to use midwives to achieve this.

This was part of a study published this week in the medical journal The Lancet.

The program has now matched more than 700 women giving birth to Indigenous babies with a First Nations midwife or a midwife with cultural awareness training.

“Before this model, there were only about 30 First Nations women who received this type of care.”

“One of the main things is that women feel a lot more confident in the system.

“Midwives provide a connection to the community, a connection to community supports.”

Indigenous Families Embrace the Baggarrook Program

Ms Henry works in the Baggarrook Midwifery Program at the Royal Women’s Hospital, Melbourne.

It was the midwife who caught the baby Emilia.

“As an Aboriginal midwife, it’s really fun to work with Aboriginal families,” Ms. Henry said.

“I get some of the challenges they might face getting to the hospital and also know how integral moms and babies are to our healthy communities.”

The actors of the program ask for its extension.

“We now find that we have to turn women away because the places are filling up,” Ms Henry said.

“There have already been 40 families that we have not been able to integrate into Baggarrook this year, so I think it is really important that hospitals and the government commit to developing these programs.

A smiling brunette woman
Storm Henry says Baggarrook’s midwifery program has been overwhelmed with pregnant women seeking care.(ABC News: Nicole Asher)

Prof McLachlan said around 20 per cent of First Nations babies born in Victoria were born at the three hospitals involved in the study – the Royal Women’s Hospital, Mercy Hospital for Women and Joan Kirner Women’s and Children’s Hospital.

“We want the remaining 80% of women to have access to this culturally appropriate model of care that we know is associated with better outcomes,” she said.

Although there are similar services scattered across the country, the success of the program shows that the continuity of care model should be made more widely available, experts said.

“Back home in Queensland, most of the Aboriginal women live in remote communities and have to fly to Cairns, Townsville or Brisbane to have their babies, so that would definitely be beneficial,” Ms Muhl said.

“Sometimes your family can’t make it to your birth, so having that familiar face has really helped.”

Ryan H. Bowman