THE girl with the pear-shaped face and big eyes could have led a normal life.
But her mother, a maid who was desperate to hide her growing abdomen from her employers, bound her belly and ate less and less each week.
That was why baby Anna (not her real name) was born with kidney failure and brain damage in late 2005.
Just one week after her birth, baby Anna had to undergo several surgeries to remove one of her kidneys and to clear a blockage in her other kidney.
Her mother had also been investigated by the police for being part of a vice ring.
Despite what she had gone through, Anna rarely cried.
Recalling the first time he saw her in the hospital, Mr Noel Tan, 40, cofounder of Sanctuary House, said: “She was a sweetheart. She had a good head of hair, big eyes and was so sweet and cute.
“It’s such a pity. She could have grown up to be a very pretty little girl.”
Sanctuary House is a charity at Goldhill Centre along Thomson Road that cares for abandoned and abused children by finding foster parents for them.
They have taken care of 62 children so far this year. Volunteers at Sanctuary House are currently caring for about 30 children.
Mr Tan, who said that he was “very saddened” when the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports referred the case to him, said that Anna’s mother was remorseful and spent some time with Anna before she was deported.
By starving themselves and binding their abdomens, mothers may cause their babies to suffer from malnutrition and other medical problems. (see report : Baby's growth may be restricted)
In her first two months, Anna was floppy – literally like a rag doll – because she had no muscle density and very little muscle control, said Mr Tan.
Due to the extent of her brain damage, Anna needed a lot of physiotherapy to stimulate her.
Her foster mother had to help her with physiotherapy each time she changed Anna’s diapers – which meant eight rounds of physiotherapy a day.
Anna’s foster mother also had to carry her all the time, said Mr Tan.
He explained: “That baby needed that kind of contact. She needed a lot of cuddles and hugs.”
It was only when she was 2 1/2 months old that Anna started to gain more muscle control, said Mr Tan.
Three months after her birth, Anna was repatriated together with her mother. Anna’s father is a foreign construction worker.
The ministry of social welfare in Anna’s birth mother’s home country took over after their repatriation. It is not clear if Anna is still with her mother, or if she has been adopted.
Sanctuary House facilitates four or five adoption cases for foreign women each year.
Most of these foreign women had come to Singapore to work as maids or contract workers and had either become pregnant while working here or had been unaware that they were pregnant when they came.
Recalling another case, Mr Tan described how a maid tried to hide her pregnancy by eating very little as well.
She had planned to abandon the baby discreetly because she was already married with children in her home country.
But her employers heard a wail and found her in the toilet with a baby on the floor, with the umbilical cord still attached.
The maid looked up and told her employers: “This is not my baby.”
The baby boy was born two months premature and was severely underweight.
Mr Tan, who learnt of the case through a friend, said: “He weighed just 2kg when he was 1 1/2 months old. That’s the size of a spring chicken.
“Although I did not get to meet the mother, I heard that she was more lucid after her stay in the hospital, and she was grateful for the assistance provided.”
The boy and his mother were repatriated after two months at Sanctuary House.
He was adopted within 10 days of being sent home.
Baby’s growth may be restricted
WHEN mothers starve, their babies starve too, said Dr Tan Thiam Chye, consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist at the KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital (KKH).
This is because the developing foetus derives his or her nutrients entirely from the mother.
He added that chronic starvation leads to poor foetal growth.
There is also an increased risk of growth restriction if the mother wears very tight clothes or binds her abdomen after the second trimester, he added.
Growth-restricted babies are at risk of stillbirth, jaundice or low sugar levels at birth, said Dr Tan.
He added: “Recent studies have identified a long term relationship between low birth weight and the incidence of obesity, diabetes and hypertension later in life.
“The origin of obesity and chronic diseases may have been pre-determined in the womb. Thus, pregnant mothers should think carefully if they would want to starve on a chronic basis as this can have longterm impact on the child later as an adult.”
Referring to Anna’s case, Associate Professor Mary Daniel, senior consultant and head of neonatal ambulatory service at KKH, said that children born with permanent kidney failure would require a special diet.
She said: “Whether (Anna) can lead a normal life depends on whether the kidney failure is permanent or temporary, and how severe her brain damage was.
“If the damage was mild, then she might have satisfactory outcomes and catch up on her developmental milestones. Severe brain damage may cause developmental delay.”