Mothers reveal how language barriers impact prenatal care, as experts call for interpreters to be permanent hospital staff


Baca dalam Bahasa Indonesia

In a small Victorian town, Liv, a mother of five, recalls the hopelessness she felt at her pregnancy check-ups.

Part of Myanmar’s ethnic Karen community, she came to Australia in 2007 and does not speak English.

“The interpreter keeps changing, or sometimes I can’t understand the interpreter. So, at those times I felt so sad and hopeless,” said Liv, who asked not to use her real name. 

With her first Australian-born child, the now 39-year-old had no access to an interpreter, but with her subsequent pregnancies things improved.

However, there was no continuity of care when it came to interpreters, and some experts think that needs to change.

A woman and child in a park photographed from behind.
Liv had trouble communicating with medical staff ahead of the births of several of her children. (ABC News: Gillian Aeria)

On one occasion she was offered a Burmese-speaking interpreter, but Burmese and the Karen language Liv speaks are different. 

Only with her fifth pregnancy did she have a more stable relationship with an interpreter.

Her youngest child is now three years old.

Bid to empower women in early pregnancy

Liv is among the one-third of mothers in Australia who were born overseas.

Melbourne obstetrician Oliver Daly sees the barriers these women face on nearly a daily basis.

A headshot of Oliver Daly.
Dr Oliver Daly says skilled interpreters can help women from non-English speaking backgrounds feel more empowered in early pregnancy.  (Supplied)

Working in a busy hospital in the city’s west, one in five women he sees are from a migrant background.

“It’s very challenging, because time constraints on busy wards put immense pressure on staff, with standard clinic appointments only 15 minutes long,” Dr Daly said.

“You not only have to discuss how the woman is but do all of the screening tests to identify any potential problems and prepare women for some decisions that they need to make.

“And so, if you have an interpreter on top of that, then that makes it even more challenging.”