Australians are not born equal. Even in the earliest moments of a child’s life - from conception through pregnancy and in the first year after birth - opportunities are being determined by the mother’s health, the parents’ education and income, and the quality of interaction with parents. Wouldn’t it be better if we could work with parents to narrow the gap, so that all children have the opportunity to take their first steps on a level playing field?
Last month, Opposition Leader Mark Latham announced the Labor Party’s new Baby Care Payment. The payment will provide $3000 to $5000 to new mothers in instalments over a minimum of 14 weeks. The payment will be made both to women on maternity leave and to women who are not in paid employment. This builds on the Opposition’s broader policy to “deliver quality early assistance services to families with young children that address their educational, health and welfare needs”.
Earlier this month the Prime Minister John Howard announced $365 million dollars to extend the Stronger Families and Communities Strategy supporting community-based early intervention programs. This includes parenting and relationship skills programs, as well as early-childhood programs covering nutrition, early learning and literacy and social skills. The government’s work and family strategy also includes the Baby Bonus and a system of family tax benefits. The government has not yet announced how it will address demands for maternity leave.
Family policy will continue to develop as a policy battleground in this election year. But the real needs of children and their parents must remain paramount in the policy debate.
The Institute for Public Policy Research, a UK think tank, has produced a report highlighting policy options to improve the opportunities of children from conception. These would also help alleviate some of the pressures which influence women to consider abortion. They include helping parents to prepare for parenthood, funding community children’s centres, improving access to paid maternity leave and introducing a “pregnancy premium” to help pregnant women eat better.
Birthweight is a key determinant of future opportunities for children. Low-birthweight babies are more likely to grow up with a lower cognitive ability than higher birthweight babies. They are also at increased risk of diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure in adult life. Low birthweight can even contribute to a higher death rate.
There is a variety of reasons for low birthweight but women who smoke have double the risk of giving birth to a low-birthweight baby. The good news is that women who quit smoking in the first trimester give birth to babies with the same birthweight as non-smoking mothers. Unfortunately, only one in three women smokers quit before or during pregnancy. Increased efforts are needed to reach pregnant women with successful quit smoking approaches.
Underweight women also risk having a low-birthweight baby. Improved nutrition and education programs and targeted income assistance can help. A US study showed that low-income mothers, when given increased income support, gave birth to heavier babies.
Parental income is another important factor influencing the futures of children in their first year after birth. Growing up in a poor family impacts directly on a child’s development. Better income levels result in improved child health.
An Australian study notes “families with less disposable income experience greater impact from physical or psychological problems experienced by children”, perhaps because there is little money for family activities outside the home.
The government has an opportunity to better target financial support for families and to progress a maternity payment to allow at least one parent to spend time with their child in their first year – without the financial penalty of leaving work.
Parental education levels, particularly the mother’s, also have a significant effect on the health of children. Addressing the educational needs of young women who are pregnant or have a child is an obvious area demanding attention. No woman should have to go without her education because she has given birth to her child. A national program could help address the special needs of these women.
The social and emotional bond between child and parents is essential for child development. The number and quality of early interactions between parents and their children is very important for brain development. Mothers suffering depression may offer less attention to their babies, which may mean that children learn their responses are not important. It is important to improve techniques of detecting and treating postnatal depression and other mental health issues.
By better supporting parents and by offering support to help them become better parents, we can help to reduce the level of family breakdown and improve futures for children.
We have an opportunity to continue to improve equality of opportunity for our newborn Australians. We should be equal to that opportunity.
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