By Thomas Bwire
According to the Kenya Health Sector strategic plan 2014-2018 of every eight children born in Kenya, one is a preterm birth! The birth of a premature baby is shocking to most parents. Many blame themselves and are very anxious about the future of the Preemie, as preterm babies are fondly referred to.
“I was very scared at the first sight of my newborn baby, at the Mbagathi District Hospital,” is the opening remarks by Edmund Webale, “he was too tiny”. The birth of their premature baby took a huge toll on him emotionally. He couldn’t stop wondering why it had to be his family suffering such an experience.
Well, the tides have changed now, and it’s not about misery anymore for the soft-spoken Webale, a 37-year old and father to three children.
His youngest and only son in the family, Andrew Mulendati Webale, was born at seven months in April 2017, weighing 1.45kgs. He was immediately taken to the neonatal intensive care unit for preterm babies.
“I went to the unit to see him immediately after birth. He was very tiny and I could not imagine how scared I was, even being a man, at the infant’s size,” he says.
During our interview at their residence in Rongai, a city estate located in the outskirts of Nairobi city, Andrew was happy to be carried by his father at times making playful noises while trying to reach out on his dad’s phone on the table. He is the apple of his father’s eye.
“I am happy that he keeps me on my toes. All my off-duty days are well spent with him as we bond and play together. At intervals, I also take time to place him on my bare chest so as we can bond even more,” Webale tells me.
Unlike his other two older siblings, Andrew’s birth was unexpected. It all started when Webale’s wife was rushed to Mbagathi District hospital with high blood pressure only to deliver a premature baby.
This saw them stay at the hospital for a month as their baby had to stay in the incubator for a 29 days after which they were introduced to Kangaroo Mother Care (KMC). During this time Webale developed a keen interest in KMC that sees mothers and other family members place their babies on their bare chests for skin-to-skin warmth which works just like an incubator.
Borrowed from the marsupial animal, kangaroo which gives birth to immature ones and raises them in the thermo-heated pouch, this technique has been recommended by the World Health Organization.
“Initially I was worried and scared that our baby could not live to see the next day, says Wabale, “but within three weeks after starting Kangaroo Mother Care, my baby’s weight increased to 1.75 Kg.”
At the hospital, Webale listened keenly as a nurse taught his wife on how to go about KMC. Upon their discharge, after spending four weeks at the health facility, Webale also helped with the baby in what we can only describe as Kangaroo Father Care. He would carry the baby using a leso wrapped around his bare chest.
“I am happy that my bond with my son is now so strong. Even if the mother went to the market, today, we won’t have to worry about anything as I am fully involved in his early childhood development as a father,” he says with a smile on his face.
Sentiments that his wife Jane Waithira concurs with
“Having my husband around me has been very instrumental, he is one in a million and I am happy that he is the head of our family. He has helped me take my mind off the traumatizing experience. He played a big role during my entire pregnancy up to the time I gave birth to our son.He even became the core partner assisting me tending to the baby especially when it also came to feeding times,” she says
The enthusiastic Webale, having seen how their baby grew very fast, says that KMC as an initiative should fully be embraced in the country. Now as a champion Kangaroo father, Webale is delighted to share his personal experience with other fathers out there ‘free of charge’! this he says, tongue in cheek
“Maybe we should call it Kangaroo Fatherhood Care,” chuckles Webale.
As a key component of care for preterm and low birth weight babies, KMC also includes exclusive breastfeeding.
Preterm is a medical term for babies born alive before 37 weeks of pregnancy are complete. Globally Kenya is ranked number 15 with the highest number of premature births out of 188 countries. On the other hand, 1 out of 4 newborn deaths is caused by complications of premature births.
Kangaroo mother care interventions help to improve baby’s weight, child bonding with the parents in comparison to using an incubator. Also, the baby’s body temperatures can easily be monitored as well as reduction of infections.
Research shows that some of the causes of preterm babies may be as a result of short intervals between pregnancies, malaria, malnutrition, low weight, and age of the mother.
The Kangaroo Mother Care project funded by Comic Relief where has an overall goal of strengthening the skills and capacity of health providers in seven hospitals within Nairobi County to manage preterm babies. The project aims to reach communities with communication on the importance of caring for preterm babies. It supports demand creation at the community level which includes male involvement in Maternal and Newborn Health issues.
Save the Children has so far conducted minor renovations of KMC rooms within four hospitals, provided basic equipment for the care of the babies, trained 47 healthcare workers and established follow-up mechanisms of babies discharged to continue with KMC at home.
Joan Emoh, a senior Health Coordinator with Save the Children based in Nairobi says that involving fathers in raising preterm babies makes a big difference in their growth. Though the country has seen Kangaroo Mother Care involve more women compared to men.
“We need to see how to bridge the gap and also give a priority to have men fully involved, too,” says Emoh.
Emoh advises parents to not take preterm births as a curse but as a blessing.In case such births occur outside of a health facility, such parents need to visit a health center as soon as possible to be attended by qualified medics.
“Society should also stop being judgmental on preterm babies, and for such families, they should be positive and should do everything possible to ensure their babies survive beyond their fifth birthday,” says Emoh.
In Kenya, 21 counties have embraced KMC fully. Nairobi being one of them offers it at the Kenyatta National Hospital, Mbagathi District Hospital, and Pumwani Hospital. Bungoma is hailed for being a trailblazer and pioneer in this life-saving initiative.
Like Edmund Webale, more fathers are encouraged to be supportive. Webale has been fully involved in caring for their preterm son, despite having a full-time job and sees himself as one of the few men taking the mantle of reducing child mortality rates in the country. His dream come this year is to implement his idea of Kangaroo Fatherhood Care one of its kind in the County of Nairobi.
This initiative will target families with preterm babies at hospitals where they can easily connect with fathers and do follow-up sessions after discharge from hospital so as to also keep track of the baby’s progress at household levels.
“Sometimes men tend to be bystanders when it comes to child-rearing, but they are good people. If approached nicely they are willing to listen and be supportive of their families no matter what,” concludes Webale, the Kangaroo father.