Addressing Critical Knowledge Gaps in Newborn Health

The power to prevent tragedies

By Gary Darmstadt on February 13, 2012
Afghanistan

The following piece was originally posted on Impatient Optimists. Re-posted with permission. Photo: Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

It’s an unimaginable thing to watch your child die, while you stand by as all attempts to help fail.

The New York Times reported this week on 3-month old baby Khan who died of “exposure” in the Nasaji Bagrami Camp in Afghanistan. The family didn’t have enough wood to keep a fire going all night and lost the eighth of their nine children. Officials say there’s not enough food, fuel, winter clothing, or blankets available to the families in the camp. In fact, these parents were not the only ones. In the last month, 16 children ages 5 and younger have died in the same camp, in the freezing weather.

But this child died of hypothermia--and one thing that is available that may have saved Khan’s life is skin-to-skin contact or “Kangaroo Care”. Unfortunately, it’s likely that this was not tried by the family, most likely because they didn’t know about it.

The lack of knowledge about this life-saving practice is unacceptable.  The New York Times article may have failed to mention it, but we don’t want to lose this chance to educate the world about skin-to-skin contact.

Skin-to-skin contact is literally a force of nature. The provider, often the mother, holds the baby close by placing the baby in direct skin-to-skin contact on the chest. Studies have demonstrated that this practice can significantly improve the odds of survival, and is acceptable to mothers as it represents a powerful tool to impart life and good health to their baby. It stimulates maternal-newborn bonding that simultaneously promotes breastfeeding, warmth, love, growth, and maturation of the neurological system.

Simple skin-to-skin contact can also calm the baby so she startles less and cries less.  In many cultures, in fact, this practice is perceived as a force which wards off evil spirits. The belief is that the baby startles and cries in response to the lurking of a malevolent force, a force that the newborn that has just come from the spirit world to earth, can still sense.

Skin-to-skin contact has many benefits, however.

In addition to the perceived spiritual and the proven physical benefits, there are profound social benefits that come from giving communities the power to save their own children, and to spread the practice organically through their own social networks. And because this costs nothing the financial benefits are extremely sustainable.

This approach is not new; it’s been practiced on preterm babies in hospitals for more than thirty years. But it needs more attention as a simple, effective and community-based life-saving intervention for all newborns and babies around the world – this knowledge could have saved baby Khan.

It saddens me to no end to know that, according to this New York Times article, it’s highly likely Khan’s parents didn’t know about this simple method. The leaders of the camp didn’t know; nor did the international relief workers or government officials.

Yes, warm blankets and fuel are necessary and can help. But, amazingly, so is the warmth of a loved one. I have seen it save many newborns - even after the kinds of desperate interventions attempted by Khan’s family failed.