First focussed data in two decades reveals good news about Indigenous maternal health

Most Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander babies are born healthy, according to a new report from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW).

The proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander babies with a healthy birthweight stayed roughly consistent at 87% from 2005-2020, just below the national average of 92%.

The same proportion (87%) of First Nations babies are born at full term (37-41 weeks), compared to 91% nationally.

The report, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander mothers and babies, is the first in more than 15 years to focus specifically on First Nations’ mothers and babies.

“While this is the first time that we’ve pulled it all together into a really in-depth report […], we have annually included a lot of detailed reporting on First Nations mothers and babies as part of our annual Australian mothers and babies report,” says AIHW spokesperson Deanna Eldridge.

“Having all the information drawn together in one place helps build more of a narrative and gives additional context.”

While most First Nations babies are born healthy, the report highlights that there are still health gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous populations – and not just those in birth weight and gestation term.

“We do see some areas that need additional attention, like higher rates of pre-existing diabetes and pre-existing hypertension,” says Eldridge.

Some other metrics have improved over the 15 years the report captures – more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander mothers are attending antenatal care early, with 39% getting care in the first 10 weeks of pregnancy in 2012, and 58% doing so in 2020.

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“The earlier uptake in antenatal care among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander mothers is an important part of ensuring babies are born healthy and strong,” says Eldridge.

Fewer mothers are smoking during pregnancy as well: the proportion has moved from 51% in 2005 to 43% in 2020.

And fewer mothers are under 20 years of age, which can carry increased complications.

“We’ve seen a halving of the rate of First Nations’ mothers who are aged less than 20. It’s gone down from 22% in 2005 to 11% in 2020,” says Eldridge.

In 2012, 50% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander mothers lived in the most socially and economically disadvantaged areas. This number has declined to 44% in 2020.

“The report shows that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander mothers who live in very remote or socioeconomically disadvantaged areas have less access to antenatal care and overall poorer health outcomes,” says Eldridge.

Eldridge says the AIHW can’t comment on policies that might have improved (or failed to improve) any of these metrics.

But she does highlight the importance of having this information available, “so that policymakers and decision makers know what areas need further support and can focus the attention where it’s needed”.

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