SINGAPORE - Couples who have babies with low birth weight and pregnant women with gestational diabetes mellitus need more support, and more can also be done to ensure maternal mental health and well-being, said Second Minister for Health Masagos Zulkifli on Monday (June 7).
This additional support will provide a better environment for children here to grow up in, as the early years - and in particular the first 1,000 days - are critical for the child to build a strong foundation, he said.
Mr Masagos, who is also Minister for Social and Family Development, highlighted these three key areas where more can be done during a speech at the third Temasek Shophouse Conversations forum, which focused on maternal and child wellness.
The virtual event, organised by Temasek Foundation in partnership with KK Women's and Children's Hospital (KKH), was attended by about 700 registered participants from the public, private, and community sectors.
Mr Masagos said that Singapore has achieved good international rankings in life expectancy and attaining the lowest infant mortality rates.
"We can do more in some areas: go even more upstream where we can, focus our resources on certain developmental pathways which warrant more attention," he said.
He noted that one in 10 babies in Singapore is born with low birth weight and is thus at higher risk of developing physical and mental health issues later in life, such as obesity and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Maternal malnutrition and health problems, maternal age, and preterm birth are key factors contributing to low birth weight, he said.
"Fortunately, many of these can be addressed if we support couples even before conception. (This is) a good opportunity for social-health integration," said Mr Masagos.
The Growing Up in Singapore Towards Healthy Outcomes (Gusto) study has also found that one in five pregnant women is at risk of developing gestational diabetes mellitus (GDM).
Gusto is a longitudinal study that started here in 2009 to study how pregnancy and early childhood conditions influence the health and development of women and their children.
Diabetes in pregnancy, also known as gestational diabetes mellitus, is a condition of abnormal or elevated glucose readings during pregnancy.
Mothers and their children are then at higher risk of metabolic disorders, and children are at a higher risk of developing obesity.
Taking this into account, KKH initiated the Temasek Foundation GDM Care Programme to provide enhanced care for mothers with GDM, said Mr Masagos.
"But we should not only see this as a medical issue. This is an area where it takes a whole-of-society effort," he added.
Healthcare and social agencies can work alongside community organisations to develop programmes to address the risk factors for GDM, such as through physical activities and encouraging a nutritious diet.
The Gusto study also found that found that maternal depression during pregnancy affects the development of brain microstructure in the foetus, which could lead to anxiety and mood disorders in the child's later life.
Hence it is important to strengthen social support to mothers and mothers-to-be, and everyone can play a part, said Mr Masagos.
For example, healthcare workers actively look out for symptoms of low mood and depression during antenatal and post-natal check-ups through screenings for mothers and mothers-to-be, while social agencies and community groups can also look out for such symptoms.
At the workplace, more psychological and emotional support can be given to employees and colleagues who are pregnant or transiting back to work after maternity leave, such as through more flexible work arrangements.
"At home and in the community, we can lend our support to our spouse, friends, relatives and neighbours who are pregnant and may be experiencing psycho-emotional stress," said Mr Masagos.
He also gave an update on the inter-agency task force that aims to boost maternal health and kids' well-being here. The formation of the task-force was announced during the debate on the Health Ministry's budget earlier this year.
The task force is developing a five-year strategy to provide comprehensive support to women and their children, starting as early as pre-conception and extending until the child turns 18.
Mr Masagos gave a breakdown of the task force's plans.
First, the task force will translate evidence-based findings into policies and programmes to address upstream risk factors. These include reviewing upstream preventive health efforts for women and children or exploring how to better prepare and equip young couples for parenthood.
Second, the Government and the agencies involved are reviewing their service delivery processes and will look at how healthcare agencies can strengthen collaboration with the social service and education sector organisations.
Third, the task force will use public education to boost awareness and engagement in order to shape positive behaviours.
Said Mr Masagos: " If we want to give (children) the best start in life, our support must also extend to the mother... It makes good sense for our entire society to be invested into this cause, because it benefits everyone."