Special Care Baby Units - Protecting the lives of babies born too soon

Across Sierra Leone, the chances of survival for babies who are born too soon, is small.

Tapuwa Mutseyekwa
A baby admitted at the Special Care Baby Unit at the Ola During Children's Hospital in Freetown.
UNICEF Sierra Leone/2021/Mutseyekwa
10 May 2021

Freetown - Abibatu Conteh (22 years), stands close to the cradle which has kept her baby girl safe since she was born prematurely four weeks back at the Ola During Children’s Hospital.  A few weeks ago, Abibatu would also visit the cradles of her two other babies, as she delivered a set of triplets.  Sadly, the other two babies did not make it past the two weeks of life.

“When the babies were born, they were very tiny. I was very confused, while also trying to recover from the operation,” says Abibatu as she explains the emotions which fogged her mind at the early sight of the three premature babies.  “I was unsure about how to look after the babies and did not believe that any of them would survive.”

At birth, each baby weighed less than 1kg and needed the specialised support which is provided at the well-equipped the Special Care Baby Unit (SCBU) located at Ola During Children’s Hospital in Freetown.  Despite the setback of losing the other two babies, Abibatu is today very happy with the steady progress that her baby girl is making.

A mother stands by her baby admitted at the Special baby Care Unit at the Ola During Children's Hospital in Freetown.
UNICEF Sierra Leone/2021/Mutseyekwa
A mother stands by her baby admitted at the Special baby Care Unit at the Ola During Children's Hospital in Freetown.

Across Sierra Leone, the chances of survival for babies who are born too soon, is small. Neonatal deaths are at 34 per 1000 live births according the United Nations Inter-Agency Group for Child Mortality estimates of 2019.  Some of the main causes of newborn deaths are birth asphyxia, sepsis, congenital deformity, and prematurity.

Since 2017, UNICEF, with funding from the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), has been supporting Government efforts to improve life chances for babies born too soon.  

Special Care Baby Units have been established in nine hospitals, where specialised equipment such as incubators, phototherapy machines, resuscitators, oxygen concentrators have been position to provide for the immediate special care of babies who are born too soon or those who are born sick.  An average of 25 new babies come into the SCBU at Ola During each week and the availability of this special machinery has helped to increase their chances of survival.

Apart from relying on the efficiency of the state-of-the-art equipment, the nurses at Ola During also place a lot of importance on keeping the SCBU sanitary and clean as a measure to wade off infections. The units are occupied solely by the newborns, while mothers visit their precious babies during designated times.  The visits are controlled and guided by specific infection prevention and control measures, which have played an important role in saving the lives of the delicate babies.

“Every time I come into the unit to see the baby, I have to ensure that I wash my hands at the entrance and also follow the other instructions which we have been told will reduce the chances of babies getting germs from outside,” says Abibatu, who has become accustomed and appreciative of the managed infection control routine which is in place at the SCBU.

A baby admitted at the Special Care Baby Unit at the Ola During Children's Hospital in Freetown.
UNICEF Sierra Leone/2021/Mutseyekwa
A baby admitted at the Special Care Baby Unit at the Ola During Children's Hospital in Freetown.

In the in-born unit where Abibatu’s baby is being kept, 12 other babies are also receiving specialised care and support from Sister Hawa Jabbie and her team of specialised nurses.  Sister Hawa explains that keeping the babies’ in a clean and controlled environment is a deliberate effort to speed up the recovery process. 

“Babies who are born prematurely can easily catch infections.  We therefore make sure that the SCBU remains clean and we also make sure that all mothers adhere to the specific infection control measures which are the standard of this unit,” says Sister Hawa, as she explains the importance of hygiene and sanitation in improving the chances keeping the babies alive.

For babies who have not reached the capacity to suckle from the mother’s breast, Sister Hawa also provides mothers with the skills and support on how to express the milk and to ensure that this process is also done in a hygienic manner. Mothers are advised to keep themselves clean, wash their hands before expressing the milk and ensure that the utensils used to contain and feed the baby are clean.

A nurse attends to a baby admitted at the Special Care Baby Unit at the Ola During Children's Hospital
UNICEF Sierra Leone/2021/Mutseyekwa
Nurses at the SCBU work around the clock to provide neonates with the best chances to survive.

Equipping SCBUs with the appropriate machinery and training the hospital administration to enforce strict infection control measures have combined to ensure that SCBUs across Sierra Leone stand out as model centres to increase the survival chances of vulnerable newborns. Already at these facilities, more than 12,000 newborns, some of whom weighed just 800grams at birth, have received quality care, survived, and are thriving.   Without the right care and support, they would not have made it.

“Evidence has shown that if timely quality care is provided, neo natal deaths can be prevented. The lessons and best practices which have been seen in the SCBUs across the country are today serving as a yard stick of what is required if every birth is to have a happy outcome,” says UNICEF Representative, Dr. Suleiman Braimoh.

Abibatu is happy with the care that her baby is receiving and looks forward to the day that she is discharged and able to go home.