Nearly 750,000 newborns lives could be saved every year with specific interventions for small and sick newborns.
In order to achieve SDG 3 (to ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages) focus is needed in improving care for every newborn, mainly in those who are born small (from prematurity or intrauterine growth restriction) or become ill. These babies are at high risk of dying or becoming disabled; an estimated 1 million of survivors in this group survive with a long-term disability.
Approximately 80% of the 2.4 million newborn deaths globally every year, are in low-birth-weight (LBW); two thirds of deaths happen in those born prematurely. Care in facilities for newborns is needed for the most common conditions, such as complications from prematurity, intrapartum brain injury, severe bacterial infection, pathological jaundice, and congenital conditions. (1)
infants born with low birthweight who die globally (2015)
premature babies (less than 37 completed weeks of gestation) who die globally every year
All data on this page represents the most recent data available, unless otherwise noted. Please visit our Newborn Numbers page and download the Excel spreadsheet to explore the data further.
What can be done?
Where is the improvement in care most needed?
Ninety-eight percent of neonatal deaths occur in low and middle-income countries, with 75% occurring in Southern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa (2). Of the 10 countries with the highest NMRs, eight are in Africa, where the majority have experienced a recent humanitarian crisis. In humanitarian settings, pregnant and post-partum women face enormous challenges to access care for themselves and for their newborns. These women are also at risk for malnutrition, sexual violence, poor mental health and unplanned pregnancies, as well as those related to births with no skilled attendants. (3)
In high-income countries (HICs), the neonatal mortality rate is usually low, and most small newborns survive and thrive. In middle-income countries (MICs), the risk of disability for infants born between 28 and 32 weeks of gestation is nearly double that of HICs, due to deficiencies in the quality of care. In low-income countries (LICs), disability is uncommon since the smallest and sickest newborns, usually die due to lack of access to essential care or more advanced care when needed. (4)
What is the care needed?
Most newborns can survive and thrive when good quality health care, including appropriate inpatient care, is available. In order to provide appropriate care for small and sick newborns, LMICs require improvements in inpatient care to reduce mortality and avoid long-term complications. High-quality inpatient care requires an adequate space, competent professionals in all areas, and equipment and supplies to deliver the care. All newborns require essential care, particularly at the time of birth and during the first days of life, whether in a health facility or at home. Most small and sick newborns require special inpatient care, which can only be provided in a health facility. Intensive care in a high-level referral facility is only required by a third of sick newborns. In addition, the linkages between obstetric and neonatal services need to be protected and strengthened. The Survive and Thrive report provides a list of in-patient interventions proven effective in preventing newborn mortality and disability, by each level of care; and WHO’s standards for quality care of small and sick newborns in facilities specify the various aspects of the health systems that need to be improved. Core interventions that should be available to all small or sick newborns beyond basic essential care for all newborns include:
- Kangaroo Mother Care started as soon as possible after birth for small newborns, provided as continuously as possible for at least 20 hours per day during the time the newborn is transitioning and receiving neonatal special care;
- Immediate and exclusive breastfeeding, including colostrum, provided by cup, spoon, or NG tube if baby is unable to breastfeed;
- Respiratory support when needed, guaranteeing safe oxygen use through blended air-oxygen and with oxygen saturation monitoring;
- CPAP for respiratory distress requiring positive airway pressure with guarantees of safe oxygen use and oxygen saturation monitoring;
- Appropriate and timely management of suspected serious infections (eg, sepsis, pneumonia, meningitis) with antibiotics and supportive care as needed;
- Family-centered care with families having continuous access to their babies in special care or neonatal intensive care, and participating in providing appropriate care of their baby;
- Developmentally supportive care for newborns and support for families to provide nurturing care in facilities and after discharge home;
- Discharge planning with parents to ensure their competence and confidence to provide essential nurturing care at home; and
- Follow up care after discharge from appropriate trained health care workers to monitor the baby’s condition, support the family for KMC and nurturing care, and referral for any new danger signs or complications (including Retinopathy of Prematurity follow up for small babies receiving oxygen therapy).
The WHO released recommendations for care of the preterm or low-birth-weight infant in 2022 detailing some of these core interventions.
The Nurturing Care Framework for ECD
The Nurturing Care Framework for Early Childhood Development, launched by WHO, UNICEF and the World Bank Group in 2018, demonstrates that focusing on ECD is one of the wisest investments a country can make to boost economic growth. Nurturing care is the provision of a stable environment that promotes children’s health and nutrition and interactions that are responsive, emotionally supportive, and developmentally stimulating, while providing protection from threats.
Neurosensory development begins in-utero and is responsive to positive and negative influences in the external environment from the time of birth. Hence early life exposure to hostile environment, including stress is linked to decreased brain density, with longer-term effects on learning outcomes. Newborns who are small — preterm, low birth weight, and/or small for their gestational age — and/or are sick — from infections, intrapartum related complications and pathological jaundice — are at heightened risk of neurodevelopmental delays and disabilities.
Traditional inpatient care facilities expose vulnerable newborns to excess sound and light conditions in the units, potential harm from unsafe oxygen use, separation of the mother-infant dyad, leading to parental stress and negative psychological effects in addition to delayed feeding and difficulties breastfeeding which can persist after discharge. Of the 13 million preterm newborns who survive globally each year, an estimated 2.7% have moderate to severe impairments and 4.4% have mild neurodevelopmental impairments.
Nurturing care for small and sick newborns is possible. Several evidence-based interventions can create a healing physical and sensory environment. These include Family Centered Care that allows for non-separation of the mother from her newborn; Kangaroo Care, including immediate initiation even when the newborn is receiving special care in the SCU/NICU; the Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative that supports the mother for breastmilk feeding; safety and security through infection prevention and control; judicious use of antibiotics; and safe oxygen use when needed.
Use of data for action
Countries are required to improve the measurement of the care of small and sick newborns, and their later development and health in order to achieve the goal of ending all preventable deaths by 2030.
It is of utmost importance to collect and analyze data on coverage and quality of care, including long-term outcomes in the most at-risk. In order to guide programs and investments, the continuous monitoring of data on quality of care is a key element for better results for newborns’ survival and thriving.
It is also important to establish good measurement for innovations implemented in LMICs for the care of high-risk newborns. Some examples are simpler and affordable technologies, such as bubble CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure), or innovative implementation approaches, such as task-shifting roles for various cadres of health workers.
Cost of care and return on investment
The Survive and Thrive report mentions that the increased investment by LMICs to improve access to inpatient quality care for small and sick newborns is currently at US$ 0.20 per person and US$ 1,700 per newborn death averted. The investment in health and development of all newborns, providing a good start in the life cycle, and in particular for the most at-risk, will potentially increase economic development in such countries.
Every Newborn Tracking Progress toward SDG Targets
The Every Newborn Action Plan set concrete goals regarding newborn mortality and stillbirths in general and the care for small and sick newborns specifically. Interim goals and targets for 2025 were developed in 2020 through a multi-partnered consultative process by global and country leaders and experts. The four goals are to 1)eliminate preventable newborn and stillbirth deaths by 2025, 2) that 90% of mothers have four or more antenatal visits, 3) 90% of births are attended by trained health personnel, and that 4) 80% of mothers receive routine postnatal care within two days of birth, and 80% of districts in all countries have at least 1 inpatient newborn care unit (level 2) care to provide small and sick/or newborns.
Care of the Small and Sick Newborn Community of Practice (SSNB CoP)
The Care of the Small and Sick Newborn Community of Practice (SSNB CoP), is an interactive platform that allows practitioners and experts to exchange ideas, share lessons learned, disseminate and discuss implementation research results and evidence in the area of newborn health.
The Care of SSNB provides a space for dissemination of the standards and the implementation toolkit, including country experiences shared in webinars.
REQUEST to join the SSNB CoP email list serve by emailing SSNBfirstname.lastname@example.org
REQUEST to join the SSNB CoP Online IBP Exchange Group here.
- UNICEF, WHO. Survive and thrive: transforming care for every small and sick newborn. Geneva: World Health Organization; 2019
- WHO.Newborns: improving survival and well-being;2020
- United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). Maternal Mortality in Humanitarian Crises and in Fragile Settings; 2015
- IAWG. Surviving Day One: Caring for Mothers and Newborns in Emergencies on the Day of Childbirth; 2019
- Moxon et al. Categorising interventions to levels of inpatient care for small and sick newborns: Findings from a global survey; 2019