By: Judith Robb McCord

Breastfeeding is nature’s state-of-the-art nutrition and care for newborns and toddlers the world over. The benefits of exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life are well established. While full-term babies can usually latch on to the breast right away, babies born too early, before 37 weeks of gestation, may need extra breastfeeding support until they are able to nurse on their own. These early babies, or preemies, require extra care and attention to reduce their vulnerability to illness, disability and even death.

Right now, preterm birth is the lead cause of death among children under five globally. While 90% of preemies in high-income countries survive, only 10% in low-income countries do. Yet 85% of preemies (born 32 to <37 weeks gestation) can survive with basic life-saving interventions including drying, warming, respiratory support, the management of infections, skin-to-skin contact and breastfeeding. World Breastfeeding Week provides an excellent opportunity to promote breastmilk as baby’s perfect food and to ensure women have the support they need to breastfeed their babies—whether full or preterm.

Kangaroo Mother Care (KMC)—comprised of skin-to-skin contact between mother (or another caregiver) and baby, exclusive breastfeeding, and timely discharge from the hospital setting and follow-up care in the home—is currently viewed as the highest impact intervention in preterm care. Some studies have shown that KMC can prevent up to half of all deaths in babies weighing less than 2000 grams.

Every Preemie—SCALE, a USAID-funded project implemented by PCI (Project Concern International), the Global Alliance to Prevent Prematurity and Stillbirth (GAPPS) and the American College of Nurse Midwives (ACNM), is designed to promote life-saving interventions in low-income settings. Working primarily in Africa and Southeast Asia, Every Preemie will explore barriers to health care and work with partners from the community to the health facility to advance life-saving interventions, like breastfeeding, for preterm babies.

In many low-income countries across Africa and Southeast Asia, women and families continue to face barriers to health care that most western families can’t even imagine. Projects like Every Preemie—SCALE recognize and value the importance of linking communities to health care, thereby facilitating access and use of health services. Working with community health workers, religious leaders, civil society organizations and other community groups, Every Preemie will promote the care and well-being of mothers and their newborns.

Understanding what women and their families need to successfully care for these tiny babies at home is central to Every Preemie’s work. Using innovative community partnerships, Every Preemie will explore how to strengthen Kangaroo Mother Care in the home once a woman and her preterm newborn are released from the health facility. Community health providers will support women to breastfeed and encourage mothers, fathers and other caregivers to keep the baby in skin to skin contact until it is stable and well.

Every Preemie is pleased to be a part of the global maternal and newborn health community and applauds the efforts of health care workers, whether in the community or the health facility, and their efforts to promote breastfeeding for the health of women and children.

Judith Robb McCord is a Director of PCI’s Every Preemie — SCALE program.