In developing countries, kangaroo mother care can make all the difference in the world for premature babies. (Photo: Save the Children, a collaborator in the Born on Time initiative)
Labour hit me hard. The hospital was a blur. All I can remember is the intense labour pain and the nurses rushing in and out of my room, making split-second decisions that would determine whether or not I delivered a healthy baby.
Inside me, the baby I had longed for was also struggling. A severe drop in my baby's heart rate left the doctors with only one choice - an emergency C-section. Before I knew it, I was being whisked down the hall to the operating room. Despite the chaos and pain, I'll never forget the look of panic on one nurse's face.
When the ordeal was over, I was the proud mother of a beautiful, healthy, baby girl who just happened to have the umbilical cord wrapped around her whole body at birth. Despite my overwhelming sense of relief and joy, my body was still reeling from her dramatic entry.
For whatever reason, shock or surgery itself, my entire body was shivering and shaking. I couldn't calm down. Warm blankets, my husband's loving touch, or even deep breathing didn't help. I was beyond frustrated. At the very moment I was to begin the job of being a capable, strong mother, I had lost control of my own body.
But then something incredible happened. The nurses handed my new baby girl over to me for the first time, and in that moment, it was like someone had flicked a switch. Eliana was placed on me, her skin right next to mine, and it felt like everything in the world went instantly still -- including my once-shaking body.
I looked down, and just like her mommy, Ellie was amazingly calm. Before I knew it, she began to breastfeed for the first time, without any help or guidance from myself or the nurses. Both of us were automatically in sync. It was the most amazing experience, especially because I was a first-time mom.
I kept Ellie close to my skin for days afterward, as she became increasingly comfortable with breastfeeding. (Photo: Jonathan Schrader)
It didn't take me long to realize that what we were doing was called kangaroo mother care. I had read about it in parenting books, and learned about it in pre-natal class. It is often a perfect scenario for pre-term babies who have left the comfort of a mother's womb too soon.
For me and Ellie, who was born at term, kangaroo mother care worked to calm us both down and kick-start our breastfeeding journey. But for moms who don't have access to a hospital, it can take the place of a life-saving incubator. Kangaroo mother care can literally be the difference between life and death for a baby.
It is especially critical for premature babies. Nowhere is it more important than in rural regions of developing countries where hospitals aren't readily close by, and life-saving equipment like an incubator is almost certainly not available.
Lacking health care
In some of the world's poorest places, families go without even the most basic health care. The result for premature babies is tragic: half of those born two months early will die.
"More than 90 per cent of extremely pre-term babies born in low-income countries die within the first few days of life", says Dr. Amanuel Gidebo, Maternal, Newborn and Child Health expert at World Vision Canada. "That's compared to less than 10 per cent who die in high-income settings." Here in Canada, our newborn mortality rate is less than five per 1,000 live births.
Working at World Vision Canada, I have come to learn that pre-term birth is now the leading cause of death in children under five. More than 75 per cent of those deaths can be prevented with approaches that aren't costly or complicated -- like kangaroo mother care. Dr. Gidebo describes it as "continuous skin-to-skin contact between the mother and her baby, both in hospital and after early discharge."
"It offers support for positioning, feeding, as well as prevention and management of infections and breathing difficulties", says Dr. Gidebo. It also simulates an incubator, and provides a warm and comforting environment for babies. One of the most important aspects of kangaroo mother care is the convenience of being able to breastfeed at any time, something that can make all the difference to a baby's survival.
A mother caring for her newborn baby learns to wrap her little one close to her skin. (Photo: Save the Children)
This World Breastfeeding Week, I think back to my experience with my newborn daughter, who is now a thriving three-year-old. Her birth didn't exactly go as planned. I wouldn't wish that kind of stress on any mom in the delivery room. But I do wish every new mom could have that same sense of peace and serenity that comes from that amazing skin-to-skin contact as well as the ease of breastfeeding.
I especially want this for those mothers in developing countries who have to deliver their babies in less-than-ideal circumstances. For some of them, kangaroo mother care could make all the difference in the world.
"Kangaroo Mother Care has the potential to save the lives of millions of pre-term babies in low-resource settings," says Dr. Gidebo.
To learn more about an exciting new initiative that aims to help mothers in Ethiopia, Bangladesh and Mali achieve healthy full-term pregnancies and care for pre-term babies, please visit www.BornOnTime.org.
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