Saving underweight babies with human contact in Senegal

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DAKAR, Senegal, 06 January 2010 - Olivier was born last September at a health post in rural Senegal. He weighed just one kilogram at birth, and his mother, Lourdes Gomez, cried because she thought he would not live.

But nurses at the health post had been told to send underweight newborns to the nearby Roi Baudouin Hospital, where, since 2009, an innovative method has been in place to nurture low birthweight babies back to health.

Weighing in

In Senegal, reported maternal mortality has decreased from 1200 to 400 deaths per 100,000 live births between 1990 and 2005. But despite these improvements, neonatal mortality remains high - 35 out of 1,000 children die in the first 28 days of life.

Statistics like these are why the Kangaroo Method has been introduced into some Senegalese hospitals and clinics. The Kangaroo Method is a low-cost technique that allows mothers to keep their babies who are born with low birth weights warm, healthy and growing. Prematurity accounts for 24 per cent of neonatal deaths, and many of those deaths are caused by hypothermia. By using the Kangaroo Method, these mothers provide vital skin-to-skin contact.

Saving her son

Lourdes arrived with Olivier at Roi Baudouin just one day after he was born. Once at the hospital, nurses and doctors in the Kangaroo Unit taught her the method. Unlike healthy newborns who need to be fed every three to four hours, Olivier needed to be fed every two hours to ensure he had enough energy to stay warm.

One of the most essential elements of the Kangaroo Method is skin-to-skin contact. By wrapping the baby to her bare chest, Lourdes could keep Olivier warm with her own body heat. In doing so, he could use the precious calories from breast milk to grow bigger instead of to stay warm. This technique also enables the mother's heartbeat to help the baby breathe regularly.

Mothers like Lourdes come to the Kangaroo Unit daily until their baby reaches two kilos; and then weekly, until their baby reaches three kilos.

A method that works

Less than three months after his birth, Olivier is in a room at Roi Baudouin Hospital. He smiles as his mother balances his two feet on her thigh. He now weighs four kilos and is healthy, says Lourdes. He is just one of 140 children who have benefited at Roi Baudouin from the Kangaroo Unit this past year.

Next to Lourdes sits another mother whose baby was born 18 days ago. He weighed just 1.6 kilos at birth, and then lost more weight. Now he weighs 1.65 kilos. His mother holds him close to her, and says she will continue to use the Kangaroo Method, because she has faith that it works. Lourdes and Olivier are proof of that.