Saving the lives of newborns through expert care and support at SCBUs

Working with partners to prevent newborn deaths in Sierra Leone

Tapuwa Mutseyekwa
A nurse stands by a  premature baby admitted at a Special Care baby Unit in Freetown.
UNICEF Sierra Leone/2020/Mutseyekwa
13 November 2020

With every pregnancy, a woman’s dream is to have a safe and healthy delivery after nine months. There is also the sweet expectation to receive the baby, cuddle and love them endlessly from the very moment they are born. For some mothers however, the birth of the baby comes with complications which require immediate specialised and mechanised care for the babies. 

“Some of the babies here were born prematurely, while some were born with some health complications that require specialised care and attention in incubators” says Sister Martha Laggah as she explains the array of cases which make it through to the Special Care Baby Unit (SBCU) of Ola During Children’s Hospital (ODCH) in Freetown.

A lot of patience, passion and empathy are some of the apparent personality traits which Sister Martha, portrays as she gives new parents the support that they desperately need to overcome the anxiety and stress of seeing their precious newborn connected to machines to help then survive.

In a country where out of every 1000 births, 31 of the newborns will not make it through the first month of life, the apprehension of these parents is well understood. However, evidence has shown that if timely quality care is provided, the majority of these deaths, which are caused mainly by birth asphyxia, prematurity, sepsis, and congenital deformity, can be prevented.

“We have received babies who were born weighing just 800gms who spent long weeks in the incubator to survive."

Nurse Martha Laggah
A premature baby lies on a bed in a hospital in Freetown.
UNICEF Sierra Leone/2020/Mutseyekwa
A premature baby lies on a bed in a hospital in Freetown. Support from the UK-FCDO has helped revamp SCBUs across Sierra Leone.

"We have also attended to babies who came in with breathing difficulties and who needed immediate resuscitation. It is important for us to detect these difficulties early so that we can provide early and effective care,” says Martha as she runs down  some of the amazing stories of success from this SCBU especially since a major facelift was undertaken by UNICEF with support from the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) (Formerly DFID).

Since 2017, Ola During together with eight other SCBUs from eight districts, including Freetown, have been equipped with lifesaving equipment such as incubators, oxygen concentrators, CPAP, radiant warmers, phototherapy machines, monitors, all of which are needed to provide specialised medical support for babies born prematurely or those born with complications. To date, more than 12,000 newborns have received quality care, survived and are thriving because of the advanced care that they received at these facilities.  

“It is UNICEF’s priority to ensure that every child has the opportunity to see and live through the next day in good health, in caring environments and with all the opportunities they need to survive and thrive,” says UNICEF Chief of Health and Nutrition, Yuki Suehiro. “The lessons and best practices which I have seen in the SCBUs across the country, are today serving as a yard stick of what is required across all hospitals in the country if every birth is to have a happy outcome.”

In addition to the state-of-the-art equipment, staff at these facilities, including Sister Martha, are getting continuous education and training to build their capacity to provide the unique attention that is required for babies admitted at these facilities. Staff have received training on proper use and care of the equipment in the SCBU, ensuring that it is regularly serviced, well maintained and used properly to avoid damages.

In 2018, Sister Martha was part of a delegation from Sierra Leone that received specialised training in Kangaroo Mother Care in Kenya. 

Sister Martha is today rolling out this cost effective and impactful way of giving skin to skin contact between a mother and the low weight newborn to provide them with bodily warmth and initiate a bond between the mother and her baby. The regular on-the-job trainings conducted at ODCH have benefitted many staff from other institutions from across the country. Sister Martha emphasised on the importance of providing mothers and other caregivers with the correct information on care of their delicate babies, even when they leave the hospital.

A nurse helps a mother give her premature baby Kagaroo Mother Care
UNICEF Sierra Leone/2020/Mutseyekwa
Sister Martha supporting Fatmata to practice Kangaroo Mother Care

“The important thing is to ensure that the baby is kept warm and close to the mother’s chest,” says Sister Martha as she helps Fatmata Tangabay to comfortably huddle her baby, who was born prematurely and weighing just one kilogram (1kg).

Immediately after giving the required support to Fatmata and her baby, Sister Martha washes her hands, ensuring that she has a clean pair of hands to attend to another baby, who needs feeding.

“Being a first-time mom is often very confusing. The pressures and anxieties of having a prematurely born baby can weigh in heavily on mothers. We as the nurses need to provide the necessary care and support to both the baby and the mother during this time,” says Martha, as she explains the different measures, they take to ensure that both baby and mother leave the SCBU in good health.