Hamilton

Hamilton enlists young parents as mentors in struggle for higher birth weights

A handful of peer mentors and researchers have been enlisted by public health officials and a network of more than 30 local health organizations to figure out the barriers to birthing and raising healthy babies in the city.

Young parents have double the risk of delivering low birth weight babies

Michelle Hawrylyshyn, 21, had her son Tyson when she was 17. She's one of a handful of peer mentors trying to help others in her situation feel less alone. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

When she was pregnant at age 17, Michelle Hawrylyshyn could tell when a nurse or doctor had just realized how old she was.

"As soon as they see your file and read your age, it's like they say, 'Oh, we need to treat her differently,'" she said.

Sometimes "differently" felt patronizing – assuming she couldn't change a diaper – or stigmatizing, Hawrylyshyn said. She felt like she couldn't ask for help for fear she'd be judged.

There are other women under 21 in Hawrylyshyn's situation, and she's trying to help them.

Hawrylyshyn, now raising her 4-year-old son Tyson as a single mom, is one of a handful of peer mentors and researchers enlisted by public health officials and a network of more than 30 local health organizations to figure out the barriers to birthing and raising healthy babies in the city.

Young parents have twice the risk of delivering low birth weight

Young parents have double the risk of delivering low birth weight babies, defined as born weighing less than 5 pounds, 5 ounces. 

Birth weight is linked to cycles of poverty and is an indicator of long-term health for the baby and for parents, the city says.

But Hamilton public health officials knew they couldn't just storm into neighbourhoods where babies are more likely to be born small – or pregnant teens, as the case often is.

So four women, young mothers themselves, were enlisted to research and fight to increase babies' birth weights. They were mobilized partly as a response to the Code Red series published by the Hamilton Spectator showing certain neighbourhoods in Hamilton's lower city had rates of babies born with low birth weights that are double the citywide average.

The city says there are 16 neighbourhoods where the teen pregnancy rate is higher than 10 per cent.

Michelle Hawrylyshyn is studying social work at Mohawk College and hopes to go into policy-making, having had a taste of it through a young parent peer mentorship program. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

Hawrylyshyn, now 21, said the whole experience has given her a taste of policy-making and social work, which she's studying at Mohawk College with an eye to go to university and maybe on to graduate school.

'Their voices were essential'

For three years, she and the other young moms have been leading focus groups, facilitating art-making and story-telling sessions and lending their support to young mothers across the city to help them advocate for themselves and their kids.

"Their voices were essential," said Vanessa Parlette, a health strategy specialist with the city of Hamilton's public health department.

"Sometimes organizations go in and have an idea of what we need to do in light of the scientific research in an area," she said.

But for this project, that top-down approach was flipped on its head.

'You don't know what these people are capable of'

The young parent mentors have talked with more than 100 other young parents. They've launched a Facebook page to share resources, and helped develop an online tool to combat the idea that the help that does exist is too hard to find.

Through conversations with a peer, issues and barriers have come to the fore:

  • The fear that authorities will take your baby.
  • The need for post-partum and other mental health treatment without judgment.
  • The isolation from kids your same age or from judgmental family members.
  • The gap in awareness that the system may be totally new.
  • The need for help to quit smoking.

"It's kind of difficult to get on that level with a worker or a nurse," Hawrylyshyn said.

That has been reported back to hospital staffs and support workers from nonprofits, with training focused on how to lend more support to younger parents.

Hawrylyshyn and other mentors presented some of their efforts to a city board of health meeting in December. For now, Parlette said, the city is seeing decreasing rates of low birth weight babies. 

"Although it's good news, it's too early to attribute to the work that we've been doing," she said.

Hawrylyshyn's son Tyson is now 4, and she says sharing her story with teen moms often helps them open up. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

But even before their efforts can be quantified in higher birth weights, Hawrylyshyn said she hopes to convey a message both to the moms she meets and to people in healthcare and government.

"Don't judge, don't stigmatize," she said. "People are sometimes surprised to hear I'm in college, I have a job with the city.

"You don't know what these people are capable of." 

kelly.bennett@cbc.ca | @kellyrbennett

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