How a simple technique is saving babies’ lives in Nigeria

A team of health workers is bringing ‘kangaroo care’ to remote communities.

By Rabiu Musa, Communications Specialist, UNICEF Nigeria*
Masa’uda Abdullahi holds her daughter Rahama in Kebbi State, north-western Nigeria.
UNICEF/Rabiu Musa
08 May 2020

The chances of survival for 6-month old Rahama were looking very slim.

Rahama's 18-year-old mother, Masa’uda Abdullahi, was worried. “I gave birth to Rahama when I was only seven months pregnant. I was very afraid that I was going to lose her,” she said, cradling her baby.

But a health worker who arrived in her community in Kebbi State, north-western Nigeria, suddenly gave Masa’uda hope.

Afiniki, a midwife who is part of a UNICEF-supported team that supports hard-to-reach communities with care for mothers and newborns, introduced Masa’uda to “kangaroo care”. With this technique, the mother keeps her low birth weight, pre-term baby on her bare chest to provide her body’s warmth. The simple, yet powerful, self-care method helps babies to grow and gain weight. It is considered a viable alternative to incubators and is effective in reducing mortality and morbidity in pre-term, low birth weight infants, especially those in rural and hard-to-reach communities.


From frail to thriving

“When we arrived in [Masa’uda’s] community to provide antenatal care and immunization services to pregnant and lactating mothers and young children, we heard about five-day-old Rahama, who weighed just 1.5 kg — compared to a normal weight of 2.6 kg to 4 kg,” said Afiniki. “We were very concerned about Rahama, especially when we saw she was too frail to even open her eyes or breastfeed.”

Masa’uda and her baby were taken to the nearest health facility, where Masa’uda was trained on how to provide kangaroo care.

“She followed all of our instructions carefully. Two weeks later, Rahama’s weight had increased to 1.7 kg, and by the fourth week, her weight had increased to 2 kg. We were all thrilled! Now, at five months, she is already 4 kg,” said Afiniki, visibly happy with Rahama’s steady improvement.

“I followed every instruction the midwife gave me — from how to put Rahama on my chest all the time, to how to clean her body with soft clothes, and how to extract breastmilk and feed her with a teaspoon when she was not strong enough to feed on her own,” said an elated Masa’uda. “The midwife told me clearly not to feed Rahama anything other than breastmilk. To my greatest surprise, my baby survived and gained weight. She is now 6 months old, in good health and thriving.”

“To my greatest surprise, my baby survived and gained weight. She is now 6 months old, in good ‘kangaroo care’ and thriving.” 

Health care for the hardest to reach

Rahama is a fortunate survivor, who got timely care and medical attention. Few Nigerian children will pull through the ordeal of being born pre-term in a hard-to-reach community with negligible or poor health care.

But many complicated neonatal health conditions can be avoided if pregnant women are able to visit health centres for regular antenatal care and check-ups.

"For health workers, it is critical to [convince] mothers to seek antenatal care during their pregnancies,” said Afiniki.

Between October 2019 and January 2020, 41 cases of pre-term deliveries were found by the team in 12 local government areas of Kebbi State. Of these, 29 children survived and 12 died, despite all efforts to save them.

Rahama’s life story could have been different, but for the help of health workers in these remote communities.

With the arrival of COVID-19 in Nigeria, this work will no doubt become more challenging. But the team of midwives and essential health care workers are committed to safely supporting more than 1,000 hard-to-reach communities with basic medical care through mobile clinics, to ensure that every child is given a chance to survive and thrive – just like Rahama.

This project in Kebbi State, Nigeria, is managed by UNICEF with funding from the European Union.

* This article was published posthumously, as our dear colleague Rabiu Musa passed away in Kano on 2 May 2020 while working to promote the rights of children in Nigeria and ensuring they can survive and thrive.