April is Child Abuse Prevention month. As we understand more about children, we recognize the most significant child development occurs during the very young ages—including a child within the uterus of a pregnant woman. When we think of child abuse occurring, we seldom think about the very beginning, the critical prebirth developmental phase.
Every baby should begin life with every chance to be born healthy
Far too prominent in our industrialized, sophisticated country are deficiencies in prenatal care for pregnant women. Because many women do not receive proper care for them and their baby during their term, higher incidences of newborn health problems, low baby weight and even higher mortality rates for child and mother can occur. It has become predictable that women in areas of poverty, teenagers and certain minorities have higher rates of late or no prenatal care.
I do want to take a moment to affirm our Lakeside Girls Academy which helps pregnant teenagers find proper pre- and postnatal services for their babies. There are many other organizations that do the same for pregnant women. We should be supporting these programs with funding and advocacy. They are essential.
Prenatal drug and alcohol abuse
Of great concern is a pregnant woman’s abuse of drugs and alcohol. We have seen a whole population of children born to mothers using drugs and alcohol. Babies born to women using alcohol have a higher incidence of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. The alcohol passes right through the placenta to the baby; so, in fact, the baby is receiving tremendous doses of alcohol and may go through alcohol withdrawal.
Pregnant women who use drugs such as cocaine or heroin can have babies who have developmental problems as well as learning problems. These babies may also suffer from withdrawal symptoms. Moreover, a propensity exists for babies of drug-addicted women also to become drug addicts. Prenatal drug and alcohol abuse have devastating effects that can impact newborns in a number of ways for the rest of their lives.
Impact of prenatal stress
Finally, research is now giving us new data regarding women who are under high levels of stress, or who are traumatized. Stress pours damaging enzymes to their babies. We are still learning about the physical impact of these enzymes but we have learned they will affect brain and organ development.
So one of the ways to help our children be healthy is to help our pregnant women to be healthy.
We need to promote the programs that offer pre- and postnatal care. We need to make sure that pregnant women who abuse drugs and alcohol are getting the help they need. We also need to be aware of and prevent domestic abuse, trauma and other stressful situations for our pregnant girls and women.
We need to work toward a society of children who start off healthy and have the fullest opportunity to live healthy lives. We can begin by preventing child abuse and neglect at its earliest moments in their precious lives.
Gerry Vassar, President/CEO, Lakeside Educational Network