A first-of-its-kind prevention strategy for prenatal exposure to alcohol is ready to be unveiled in the Brainerd lakes area.
All that’s needed is a mom-to-be willing to take part.
“There is literally nowhere else where this is happening in a community. There have only been a few clinical studies in medical institutions,” said Jody Allen Crowe, founder and president of Healthy Brains for Children, the organization heading the effort.
The prevention strategy is called “My Baby’s Breath.”
It uses monitored cellphone breathalyzers to keep tabs on alcohol levels in pregnant teenagers (who have used alcohol during the pregnancy) or other at-risk pregnant women.
It’s headed by Healthy Brains for Children, a group that’s focused on ending the prenatal exposure to alcohol. It’s the same group that recently headed an effort to install pregnancy tests in a few local bars and a gas station.
Crowe, along with Healthy Brains for Children Executive Director Julie Frederick, met Wednesday with county and school leaders to explain the program and gather input.
“This is a discussion on how we can make this happen in our community,” Crowe told the group.
My Baby’s Breath is designed to “give the alcohol-involved pregnant woman an accountable reason to not drink while pregnant,” Crowe said.
Here’s how it works:
• A county or school official identifies a mother-to-be who is consuming alcohol, and can request she be enrolled in the program. (Parental consent is needed for the voluntary enrollment)
• Breathalyzers and cellphones will be provided for the women.
• The pregnant women will get a daily text sent to her cellphone indicating she has 45 minutes to do the breathalyzer test. As she does so, a photo is taken to make sure the right person is taking the test. The photo and test results are sent via text to the monitoring company.
There will be periodic incentives for those who remain alcohol-free.
On Wednesday the group brainstormed those incentives, including things like gift cards, education certificates for the youngster and additional minutes added to the cellphone.
Crow Wing County Attorney Don Ryan suggested the phones not be too appealing, as it might entice some teens to get pregnant on purpose in order to cash in on a new phone.
Assistant Crow Wing County Attorney Janine LePage said while she thinks the program is a good idea, there will be several hurdles to overcome. For example, she said, the teen population she sees are often in households where the parents support alcohol use or supply it. Finding county staff to monitor a teen’s progress will be tough, as many departments are already burdened with too much work and not enough time, she said.
Brainerd School District nurse Aimee Jambor said more than half of the teens she sees each year know that alcohol is bad during pregnancy and will avoid it. The others will be tough to reach, she said.
“It’s hard. How do we capture that population? I don’t know,” she said.
Brainerd High School Principal Andrea Rusk said school staff will be able to help reach out to the teens.
“We have a relationship with them and we see them every day,” she said.
After a mother-to-be is signed up for the program, she will give a fingernail sample to determine alcohol patterns in the previous 90 days. That will later help measure the success of the program.
The cost to monitor the progress and have a breathalyzer is $200 per month, with additional fees for the initial alcohol patterns test. All of that will be paid by Healthy Brains for Children’s Peter Johnson Memorial Fund. There is no cost to participants or organizations partnering.
If the breathalyzer data shows the mom-to-be is consuming alcohol, the monitoring agency or nonprofit organization will be notified.
Priority for placement in the program is given in the following order: pregnant teenagers younger than 18, pregnant women between 18-21, pregnant women older than 21.
After Wednesday’s meeting, Crowe and Frederick will take the input they gathered and pull together focus groups of pregnant teens and former teen mothers (with the help of local school leaders) to weigh in on what they think of the program and what it would have taken to get them involved.
Crowe estimates overall, about half of teen pregnancies will include exposer to alcohol.
“We could impact 50 percent of teen pregnancies in a positive manner,” he said. “That could be more kids with healthier brains, less in special education in the ICU. That’s a lot of savings to the county.”
Just when the program will start being implemented depends on the local service and county organizations, Crowe said. The group is ready now, all they need are willing participants.
“This is a journey,” Crowe said. “We are just beginning that journey. It’s really exciting for Brainerd. The model is being developed here and will be used everywhere else.”