Speaking the language

Program helps new Canadians give their kids a healthy start

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Winnipeg Health Region
Wave, March / April 2013

Lorraine smiles as she looks into her daughter Lara Kimberly's dark eyes, rocking the five-month-old baby gently, amidst the noise and gentle disorder of a Wednesday afternoon drop-in for new mothers.

The pair are regulars at the Healthy Start for Mom & Me sessions at Knox Centre on Edmonton Street in downtown Winnipeg. Healthy Start, which is funded by the federal and provincial governments and supported by the Winnipeg Health Region, runs nine sites, which offer programs for both pregnant and post-natal women, but Knox is the one that provides language interpreter services for newcomers to Canada who don't speak English.

On this mid-March afternoon, women filter into a basement room at the church, pushing strollers with newborns and tugging toddlers by their hands. There are 40 women on this particular Wednesday, although up to 70 come when the weather is nicer. They find seats according to signs listing their mother tongue: Nepali, Urdu, Mandarin, Amharic, Russian, and some thirteen more. Each language group has an interpreter which is what makes the Knox program helpful for new arrivals.

As the session begins, it gets louder in the room. Babies are wailing, mothers are chatting with their friends, hopping up to change diapers at the change table and finding quiet corners to nurse in.

"When I got pregnant, I wanted to learn more about how having a baby works in Canada," says Lorraine, who came to Winnipeg in 2011 from the Phillippines and is studying English in order to become a health-care aide. She also has an older daughter, Diana Lalaine, 7, so she can compare having a baby in Canada and her former country.

"In the Phillippines, it's very expensive to have a baby," she says. "Medicine, baby clothing, vaccinations, the hospital visit, the doctor, even the milk is expensive."

Ruqia is another new mother, cradling her five-month-old son, Wael, in her arms, while tasting the beef and barley soup that was served to the women as the easy-tomake meal of the day.

"Having a baby here is very different than in Yemen. My mother tells me there's no pain medication during labour there," she says, adding she has lived in Canada for seven years, including going to high school. "I had my son at St. Boniface (Hospital) and it was very nice."

Word of mouth brings immigrant women from all over the city to take part in the program, to learn about nutrition and health care, have a snack and learn how to cook a simple meal. Milk coupons are distributed, songs sung and sometimes a birthday is celebrated, complete with a tiny muffin for the baby turning a year old.

"It's chaos at times," says public health nurse Gayleen Dimond, as she takes a break between talking with the mothers. "When we're making a presentation, we have to pause to let all the interpreters translate what we're saying. So it's noisy when they're catching up, but no one seems to mind."

Dimond and fellow public health nurse Justine Zidona take turns speaking about HIV prevention and how condoms are properly used. There is a little laughter in the room when they call up Healthy Start outreach worker Melanie Duncan for the condom demonstration. Images are projected onto a screen, photos and graphics helping where the language gets a little technical. They segue into a short talk on how a child has to be 12 years of age before they can be left home alone, and then explain why it's not safe to go onto the river ice at this time of the year.

"The goal is to teach mothers about how to feed their baby, about development, safety and talking to their own health-care provider, about breastfeeding, and how to be a parent," says Zidona, herself once a newcomer from Burundi in east Africa. "Many newcomers don't have their mother or close female relatives with them when they come to Canada, so they're looking for information."

Anything and everything is discussed by the women, from how to handle Canadian festivities such as Halloween through to birth control, sex, vasectomies, female circumcision and the choice of having a doctor or midwife attend during labour and delivery.

"For many women, they did not have health care in their home country, and have never made choices like this before," says Dimond, adding that they speak to the women about how the health-care community is required to keep their information confidential.

"In their old country, doctors were seen as gods. For many women, their husband had to sign papers for any medical procedure or it didn't happen," adds Zidona. "Having a baby in Canada is very different for them. Many are confused by all the tests they have to go through, when they might have been lucky to see a doctor once in their own country."

It's sometimes baffling what will catch the women's attention. The nurses once spent 20 minutes going over why it's not necessary to bathe infants every day, says Dimond. A dietitian once had to back up in the middle of a recipe calling for grated cheese, to explain what a cheese grater was, without having one on hand.

Women are always hungry for information on how to make a better life for their children, says Gail Wylie, Executive Director of Healthy Start for Mom & Me. "We run programs where dietitians and public health nurses provide that connection to the health-care system, provide a healthy snack, sell meal bags with ready-to-cook recipe and ingredients for $1.50, and offer information and links to other community help. This approach offers important access to Canadian information at a key time in family life. Women love this. They also love meeting other women and many stay with the program for their pregnancy and until their babies are a year old."

Susie Strachan is a communications advisor with the Winnipeg Health Region.

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