In Africa, experts say the deaths of thousands of infants each year from low body temperature, or hypothermia, pneumonia and other illnesses that can strike a child within days of delivery. One way that’s gaining in popularity in the southern African country of Malawi is keeping a child close to the chest of the mother and other adults. From Washington, reporter William Eagle has the story.
Infants need to be warm and well fed. And that, say experts, is the beauty of “Kangaroo Mother Care,” named after the Australian animal that keeps its newborns in its pouch – close to its body – for over a year.
The child is placed in a cloth or sling that’s wrapped around the mother’s chest, where there’s plenty of warmth and breast milk is within reach.
Mary Beth Power of the group Save the Children says in many African countries, children are carried on their parents’ backs. Kangaroo Mother Care is simply a reversal of the idea:
"For low birth weight infants,"she said,"skin-to-skin contact is very important – it helps regulate the baby’s body temperature, so if its temperature starts to drop, a mother will run a fever to keep a baby warm. It’s been documented before. So skin-to-skin contact can help that baby maintain its body heat and not burn off calories trying to keep warm – which is really dangerous for the low birth-weight infant. "
Being wrapped inside the clothes of the mother makes it easier to feed and protects the child against infection. It’s less exposed to the potential of infection because it is tightly wound with the mother, and it can breast feed. Early breast milk is the first vaccination for babies from disease. So it is an innovative technique, even though it is ancient technique, to keep babies healthy.
Jean Russell is Save the Children’s deputy country director for Malawi in Lilongwe. She says the Kangaroo Mother Care technique is being taught in hospitals and at the community level to fathers, grandmothers and other adults. Health experts hope to counteract some practices that can lead to hypothermia among children:
"There are some cultural practices that are not helpful. [For example], there is more attention paid to the mother at birth: [in home deliveries], the baby is put on the floor," she said.
"[Also, in communities], when a baby is in distress, traditionally they are put in cardboard box and taken to the hospital, where they might get hypothermia on way. "
"Babies can quickly become hypothermic. [So it’s important for] immediate drying with a cloth, using another to wrap the baby and keeping the baby close to the mother and sleeping with the mother. These are important practices. "
Russell adds that mothers who can afford it put wool hats on their infants – a practice that helps the babies retain warmth.
Mary Beth Power of Save the Children says there’s another cultural practice that can lead to hypothermia in infants.
She says it usually takes place immediately after delivery.
"In many countries," she said,"there is a feeling that the baby is polluted through the birth process, so families are often required by local custom to bathe that baby. But the early bathing of babies scrubs off the protective coating called the vernix on the newborn’s skin. It also exposes the [infant] to cold water, which would increase the chances of it getting hyperthermia."
So, we have been able to show that it would be easy to change that cultural practice and encourage the parents to wait to bathe the baby. Just wipe the baby and wrap the baby. That often stimulates a baby whose breathing was maybe not sufficient at birth. Then, swaddle or cuddle the baby and begin breast-feeding immediately. Those are important interventions to protect the newborn.
Health care experts say another simple way to reduce the chances of illness in newborns is to use a clean instrument when cutting the umbilical cord. Unclean ones can lead to tetanus – a serious problem because many pregnant women don’t get a tetanus vaccination.
Many health-related NGOs may be able to provide clean birthing kits that include the supplies needed for safe deliveries.