My heart sank yesterday when I heard the news that the Motherisk program had been shut down, effective immediately. During two very difficult pregnancies, I relied heavily on Motherisk resources, including their national phone helplines that offered support and safety information to women who were pregnant or breastfeeding.
Since its inception in 1985, Motherisk has counselled nearly a million expectant mothers across Canada and provided research-based information to many doctors and nurses. According to the Hospital for Sick Children (Sick Kids) in Toronto, which ran the Motherisk program, demand for their services had not slowed down. As of yesterday’s announcement, the two helplines were still receiving close to 200 calls a day.
Pregnancy can be an incredibly vulnerable time for women, which I learned first-hand. Both of my pregnancies were rough. And I don’t mean “rough” as in I was super-tired and had terrible heartburn; I mean rough in that I was severely nauseated, vomited relentlessly and was unable to function.
At first, my morning sickness seemed to be typical first trimester nausea, but within a few weeks, my symptoms worsened significantly. I threw up so violently it tore muscles in my abdomen, my blood pressure was dangerously low and I was losing weight fast. So much for that “pregnancy glow”—I was a wreck, and I needed help.
My family doctor smiled dismissively and said I could take Gravol if I wanted. (It did nothing.) A relative said the weight loss looked good on me. (I was scared that my baby wasn’t thriving.) I tried a high dose of Diclectin, but still ended up in hospital on an IV for dehydration. At this point, I hadn’t even seen my obstetrician yet because I was less than 12 weeks along. Google became my best friend—and worst enemy—as I tried to sort through an overwhelming amount of anecdotes, home remedies and recommendations. Not only was this unreliable online information, so much of it was conflicting or downright confusing.
What to eat while pregnant: Food guide and cheat sheetThen, someone suggested I call Motherisk. The program was designed to support expectant mothers by offering evidence-based information on conditions like severe nausea and vomiting in pregnancy as well as the risks and safety of various prescription and over-the-counter medications. The helpline also addressed other potentially harmful “exposures” in pregnancy including alcohol and illegal drug use. You could call if you weren’t sure if your cold medication was safe, but also if you suffered from addiction. As a pregnant woman with more questions than answers, this felt like a lifeline—particularly in those early weeks when very few people knew that I was expecting, and when my emotional support was limited.
When I reached out to Motherisk about my severe nausea and vomiting, they listened, asked questions and quickly provided resources about Hyperemesis Gravidarum—a condition my doctors hadn’t yet mentioned or considered. Finally, I had a name for what was happening to my body and a framework for managing it. Though the condition isn’t curable, the relief I felt in naming and understanding what I was dealing with was indescribable.
I called Motherisk a number of times over the next few months and then again during my second pregnancy a few years later. Each and every time, my calls were met with empathy, zero judgement and clear information. It wasn’t just helpful—it was a lifesaver. And talking with a real-live human being was so much more reassuring and efficient than endlessly consulting Dr. Google.
I’ve recommended Motherisk to countless friends as well as strangers since then, most often in Facebook groups where women seek out pregnancy and parenting advice. Any time someone posted about not knowing which drugstore medications were safe during pregnancy or while breastfeeding, my answer was the same: call Motherisk. They will help you.
An official statement from Sick Kids notes that several factors influenced the decision to close the program, including complex advancements in pharmacology and a lack of funding—Motherisk was largely supported by grants and private donations. As their funding sources eventually dried up, the decision was made not to cross-subsidize from other Sick Kids hospital funds.
Sick Kids has said they’d like the Motherisk program to find new life with a revamped mandate and a different host organization, ideally a hospital with ties to obstetrics and postnatal care, rather than a hospital with a paediatric focus.
Motherisk was not without controversy. In addition to the helplines, Motherisk ran a clinic under the same name. Several years ago, it was found that thousands of hair-strand drug tests performed by the Motherisk laboratory were potentially faulty. Results from these tests played a role in the outcome of many child welfare cases, and a major investigation was launched. Motherisk acknowledges the negative impact the investigation (and the ensuing publicity) had on their financial support.
It’s sad, and a bit scary, to think of the gap created by the loss of the helplines. It’s a significant step back in maternal healthcare and a blow to all women who have used this service—or may have needed it in the future. I remain personally grateful for all that Motherisk has done for me and for my two kids, and I hope that Motherisk will re-emerge stronger and better than before. As moms and moms-to-be, we deserve all of the information and support we can get.
If you’re pregnant and require guidance or support, Motherisk recommendations contacting MotherToBaby, a U.S.-based organization with similar mandates and services. You can also reach out to your primary care physician, obstetrician, midwife or a public health nurse.