29 Jun 2018

Stopping SI: Curbing high rates of pregnant Māori mothers smoking, and wahakura/pēpi pods

5:42 am on 29 June 2018

Hutt Valley Hospital and Kōkiri Marae in Lower Hutt are taking a stand to stop babies dying, with figures showing 39 percent of Māori mothers smoke during pregnancy.

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About 39 percent of pregnant Māori mothers smoke. Photo: 123RF

Sudden Unexpected Death in Infancy or SUDI kills 40 to 50 babies a year, and the risk is higher for those whose parents smoke or sleep beside them.

The Moe Ora programme is set to provide 300 wahakura, safe sleeping baskets, to babies most at risk and provide greater support to help parents quit smoking.

Fay Selby-Law from the national SUDI prevention service Hāpai Te Hauora said about 39 percent of Māori women who are pregnant are smokers.

"We know that Māori women are the highest smokers in the world and we know that Māori ... women who are hapū, are still continuing to smoke.

"What we're trying to do is to support them to make that change."

"It's not easy, it's an addiction, it's a habit, it's often - when you're a māmā it's the thing you do for yourself, it might be the only thing that you do for yourself."

Leith Porter-Samuels knows first-hand what it's like to lose someone from SUDI. She remembers the life-changing moment her baby nephew lost his life to SUDI, or cot death as it was formerly known, when she was 17 years old.

That terrible loss was not her first. The former midwife lost another in 1988 - it was the first baby she helped deliver to the world.

"It's not an isolated incident, we've all had losses and we want to be able to contribute with all that we have.

"It's about the whole whānau, the person that's gone is gone [and] the devastation is left behind. Then you've got mental health issues and so the issues carry on."

Figures from the Ministry of Health show SUDI among Māori babies is nearly five times higher than for non-Māori.

Kōkiri Marae Health and Social Services general manager Teresea Olsen said overcoming a smoking addiction could greatly reduce the risk of SUDI.

"Long-time smokers who have given up, they tell you some horror stories about how difficult it's been for them, the nightmares they have and the withdrawal symptoms they have," she said.

"But all I can say, honestly, is that there are a whole lot more supports now today than there ever was.

"Pop a gum in your mouth or make sure you've got the patches on. Honestly, it can be done."

More than half of SUDI deaths happen when a parent accidentally suffocates their baby while sleeping in the same bed.

Ms Olsen said the woven flax sleeping pods could save lives.

"If we can just encourage whānau to do a simple thing like put their pēpi into wahakura, have their own sleeping space. If they're on the couch put them in the wahakura, if they're on the bed put them on the bed in a wahakura."

Leith Porter-Samuels now takes antenatal classes, and brought her husband along just the other week to show him what she does.

"He said, wow, I learned so much. He said, do you know that's the first time I've ever been to antenatal, it's only taken me thirty-eight years.

"That's a marker about the kind of state we're in, our people."

The Ministry of Health provides $3.3 million every year to the country's 20 DHBs to support SUDI prevention activities.