Jo’s desire to look after young people runs deep. She had been a Barnardo’s caregiver for a decade and was raising her own adopted child when she decided to focus on babies. The first baby she took into her care had foetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD), a condition caused by exposure to alcohol in the womb.
Jo was spurred into action, and in 2016 formed Pediatric Education Transition and Love, or Petal Foundation, to provide a nurturing environment for newborns affected by alcohol and drugs. Petal achieved charity status in 2018.
Alcohol and the Unborn Child
It is estimated that 3000 children each year are born with FASD. Megan, Petal’s clinical lead, says that even small amounts of alcohol can be detrimental.
“The current World Health Organisation recommendations are that no level of alcohol is safe. We’ve seen diagnoses where the mother has drunk what she believed to be a safe amount during pregnancy and that has been enough to affect the baby. The other extreme is high levels of [alcohol] exposure that may have lifelong effects.”
The Possible Implications of FASD
This isn’t about apportioning blame; stopping drinking at any point during pregnancy is better than not stopping at all. Confusingly, the effects of alcohol consumption during pregnancy vary, and not every child will end up with FASD but those who do typically exhibit a range of physical and behavioural problems by the age of two-and-a-half. These may include a lack of impulse control – sometimes later resulting in stealing or violence – and an inability to learn from their mistakes. Oranga Tamariki, the Ministry for Children, suggests that between 30 and 50 per cent of young people in care might have FASD, and that children who have FASD are 19 times more likely to face prison than those who do not.
Providing Support to Mothers and Babies
But while FASD is acknowledged and understood, those who suffer from it, and their caregivers, are not necessarily supported, which is where Petal can help. In particular, the organisation offers respite to mothers who are trying to break an addiction to alcohol, by providing care and nurturing to their babies who may also be affected or experiencing withdrawal.
“Having a newborn is hard for anybody without having other issues and stresses,” Megan says.
Withdrawal is similar for babies and adults; however, the baby doesn’t have regulation or control over what’s happening to them. They are also highly sensitive to everything.
“While going through that detox period, babies are hypersensitive and they can’t necessarily coordinate the functions that are required,” says Megan. “Feeding, breathing, settling – they can’t do all of that at once because they’re struggling to hold it together; they need continuous support to get them through that stage.”
Jo notes that in such cases, social services have in recent years swung from one extreme solution to the other. Not long ago, babies were uplifted and mothers completely disregarded. The trend now is for the baby to stay with the family at all costs. Jo favours a more nuanced approach.
A Tailor-Made Approach
“It should be case by case,” she says. “The thought from us is that the mother now has a choice; she has the option to go through rehab and focus on herself knowing her baby is safe and well cared for. That’s where we come in.”
Petal has a baby-only residential home in Auckland, and babies go there only with their parents’ permission.“The Petal service is an agreement between services and parents,” explains Megan. “A plan is agreed to support the home environment and allow for respite and the chance for change.”
Maintaining the Bond
As well as Jo and Megan, Petal’s team includes several nurse aides. They are also supported by volunteers who don’t handle the babies but are critical to the home’s functioning.
Jo is keen to stress that even though mother and baby are separated, Petal ensures there is still a bond between them.
“We offer respite, interim care. We could look after a baby for a day or a few hours or up to 45 days, but there is a focus on keeping the attachment between baby and mother. A mother’s recovery will have a much better chance if she knows her baby is safe.”
Petal brings the baby to the mother every day, if she is well enough. If not, the team will set up a video link.
Megan: “If mum can hear her baby’s sounds, if she can sing to her baby on Facetime, she’s going to get that mother/baby bonding, which enables her recovery, enables her baby’s recovery and sets them up for a better start.”
The Wider Context
Ideally, babies and their caregivers wouldn’t experience these issues in the first place but Aotearoa’s relationship to alcohol is deeply embedded through easy availability and advertising, sponsorship and sports. Someone wanting to stop drinking faces many obstacles.
Megan compares public awareness of alcohol’s effects on a foetus to society’s attitude to smoking.
“We’ve had years of ‘stop smoking because it causes cancer!’ The information about FASD and how you could end up with a brain damaged baby – which is basically what FASD is – is out there but our acceptance of alcohol is blocking it. We’re not hearing those clear messages. We’d like to enhance awareness and avoid exposure to alcohol and drugs during pregnancy. That’s way bigger than us, but right now Petal can offer support and provide these babies with a safe, loving home.”