Kangaroo mother care is ensuring premature babies thrive in Iraq
How infants are receiving the intensive care they need to go home healthy.
Shaneen was just 26 weeks into her pregnancy when she suddenly went into labour. “I had no hope when the baby was arriving so early,” she remembers.
Despite her worries, she delivered a healthy son, Mateen. “When he was born, he started crying. The doctor told me that he is in good health. This planted hope in my heart.”
Mateen was rushed to an incubator at Sulaymaniyah Maternity Teaching Hospital to receive the care he needed. The facility is in the city of Sulaymaniyah, which is in the Kurdistan region of Iraq.
At this hospital, around 600 babies enter the pre-term unit every month. Most of the stays are short, but some infants require extensive care.
How kangaroo mother care can help a baby and caregiver bond
Mateen is among the babies who are benefiting from kangaroo mother care. It’s a method that helps infants to adapt to life outside the womb. Skin-to-skin contact is a core component. The baby snuggles on the parent's chest, finding a position that is comfortable, often with a blanket wrapped around them, almost like a kangaroo’s protective pouch.
For parents of premature babies that need feeding tubes and equipment to keep them alive, cuddles can seem out of reach. But kangaroo mother care allows for that physical and emotional bonding.
Mateen is now almost a month old. “When I hug my baby and breastfeed him, I feel great, especially as I have been trying for this baby for 14 years,” says Shaneen.
Three other mothers, Chawan, Shenkin and Sozi, are also watching over their tiny bundles of joy at the kangaroo mother care facility. It’s one of 15 units that UNICEF is supporting in Iraq.
Chawan’s baby, Sekhak, is just over one month old and is preparing to leave the unit in the next few days.
“I feel boundless joy every day I see her growing in front of my eyes. She is now my life, and I will be taking her home very soon,” says Chawan.
David Hipgrave, UNICEF’s Chief of Health and Nutrition in Iraq, looks over Sekhak, who has made significant progress over the course of a few weeks since the birth.
“Kangaroo mother care can reduce the time a premature baby needs to stay in hospital. It helps both mother and baby in numerous, mutually beneficial ways,” says Hipgrave. “Babies need to establish feeding and reach a sufficient weight before they can go home, and doctors need to be able to see that body temperature control is stable. Kangaroo mother care can help reach these milestones more quickly.”
“For parents, it can help them feel more confident about looking after a very delicate child.”
The transition from incubator to going home
Loujian is another mother who’s thankful for kangaroo mother care. Her daughter Rose was born 12 weeks early. After 45 days on the unit, Loujian was finally able to take her home. Rose is now 6 months old and Loujian has brought her in for a follow up visit.
“I left Kobani, in northern Syria, because of the war. When my child was born at 28 weeks, she had bleeding from her nose and mouth. I was very afraid for her, I was worried that I would lose her. I cried a lot,” recalls Loujian. “I felt great sadness and resentment. I used to say we just escaped from the war and now my daughter is sick. I lost hope in everything.”
"When I came here, things started to return to normal. Every day the nurses and doctors put Rose on my lap for an hour. This helped me learn how to raise a child. I felt safe and every day I learned something new about motherhood," Loujian says.
"This place was like a miracle to me. It completely changed my life. Little by little, my daughter's health improved.”
The premature babies being cared for also receive the routine immunizations they need to grow up healthy. Those include vaccines for polio and tuberculosis. For premature babies, the timescale for administering the doses is based on weight rather than age – they must reach 2kg before they’re vaccinated.
Meet the healthcare hero running the ward
Alwand Rafeeq is the head of the neonatal section. She’s incredibly thankful for the work that she’s a part of every day.
“I love my job very much and I feel a great commitment to these children,” she says. “I feel very proud of myself and the staff that make sure these babies leave here in good health.”
“We provide instructions to parents on how to continue kangaroo mother care at home. We keep in touch with the mothers, and they send us pictures of their children," Rafeeq says.
Mohammed is 6 months old and among those babies that have graduated from the clinic. His mother, Sazan, carried him home from the hospital wrapped in a pouch, and continued kangaroo mother care at home.
"My wife became pregnant with quadruplets following IVF. She went into labour early, at 28 weeks,” says Mohammed’s father, Zheer. “The babies weighed just 800 grams each.”
Tragically, Mohammed was the only one of the quadruplets to survive. He was admitted to the clinic and after just a few weeks he had grown to over 2kg, so he was able to receive his vaccinations and eventually go home.
The family are grateful for the kangaroo mother care unit. “They made us feel like we counted. They treated us like a family. Breastfeeding improved thanks to the care and that made both my son and wife stronger,” says Zheer.
The simple, effective measures of kangaroo mother care have been proven to save lives and improve the rate of early weight gain among low birthweight and premature babies. With UNICEF’s support, five more units will open in Iraq by the end of 2022. That means even more babies will be wrapped in love.