Women with disabilities may face more systemic challenges and assumptions about their parenting than other mothers. For example, there is evidence to suggest that mothers with intellectual/developmental disabilities are overrepresented in children’s social services, and women with other types of disabilities, including sensory and physical disabilities, report experiencing judgement and discrimination from health care providers related to their parenting skills. 

Decisions to place children into care are happening more often and earlier in children’s lives. Newborn discharge to social services is of particular concern, because mother-newborn separations can have significant negative impacts on both children and mothers due to disruptions related to breastfeeding and bonding.

In a new study, published in the International Journal for Population Data Science (IJPDS), researchers looked at the health records of over 1.4 million mothers and babies in Ontario, Canada, to investigate the role of maternal disability in children’s social service involvement at birth. Findings showed that newborns of mothers with physical, sensory, intellectual/developmental, and multiple disabilities were at a heightened risk of being discharged into care immediately after the birth hospital stay, when compared to newborns of mothers without a recorded disability. Importantly, newborns of mothers with intellectual/developmental disabilities were over five times more likely to be discharged into care, even after considering other health and social risk factors.

Many of the challenges faced by women with disabilities could be supported through meaningful, tailored supports. For example, mothers with disabilities were most at risk of having their newborn discharged into care if they were young, living in poverty, received inadequate antenatal care, or had a mental illness or substance use disorder. Findings from this study can be used to develop strengths-based and flexible family-centred services which address these social and mental health inequities.

Lead author, Claire Grant, from University College London added, “Separating a newborn baby from their mother should be the option of last resort for children’s social services. Tailored, meaningful, and responsive support for new mothers with disabilities could prevent unnecessary separations and help families stay together where possible.”


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Claire Grant, PhD student, Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, University College London

Grant, C., Lunsky, Y., Guttmann, A., Vigod, S., Sharpe, I., Brown, H. and Fung, K. (2024) “Maternal Disability and Newborn Discharge to Social Services: A Population-Based Study”, International Journal of Population Data Science, 9(2). Available at: https://ijpds.org/article/view/2396 (Accessed: 4 July 2024).