Do One Million Babies Need To Die On The Day They Are Born?

What do all mothers want for Mother’s Day, really? As the mother of two teenagers, I can easily say that year after year, I want my kids to be healthy and happy. But I have it easy and my kids have it all: food, shelter, education, health care and everything they need to be successful in life.

A world away from where I live, the newborn baby girl pictured above is sleeping in an incubator in a neonatal intensive care unit at Kiwoko Hospital in Uganda. She’s two days old in this photo and was born six weeks early. She survived against the odds thanks to two simple steroid injections her mother received when she went into preterm labor. The injections, which cost a mere 50 cents to $1, can help speed up the development of a baby’s lungs and prevent her from going into respiratory distress when she is born. Although I delivered both of my children full term, I would have gotten those steroids routinely had I needed them; they’ve been widely used in high income countries since the 1990′s.

But here are the odds this little girl beat, and the numbers are staggering: more than one million babies worldwide die on the day they are born; nearly three million in the first month. In fact, according to Save the Children’s 14th annual State of the World’s Mothers Report, released, as it is every year, to coincide with Mother’s Day, the newborn period is the riskiest time for both baby and mother the world over.

Rich, poor, industrialized, developing, newborn deaths unfortunately know no boundaries, so much so, that, as Save the Children’s president and CEO Carolyn Miles points out, in some parts of the world “mothers don’t name their children for seven days because so many will die.”

The good news is that overall child mortality has dropped: from 12 million in 1990 to under 7 million in 2011. The bad news is that it’s just not moving fast enough. And what’s really astonishing, is most of these deaths, up to 75% of them in fact, are preventable using low cost, low tech interventions, such as the steroid injections that saved this newborn’s life.

“We will never get to ending preventable child deaths if we don’t focus on newborns,” Miles told me on Wednesday at the U.N. Foundation’s Mom+Social gathering in New York, where she spoke about the report. “Forty three percent of under five deaths are in that newborn period,” Miles said the study shows. “We’ve got to move on it. We’ve got to move the newborn number,” she reiterated.

But what will it take to move it? Save the Children’s report, which this year is called Surviving the First Day, claims the three leading causes of newborn deaths are: prematurity, birth complications and severe infections. Not surprisingly, babies born to the poorest mothers face the greatest challenges to survival, no matter where they live. India faces the gravest problem, and accounts for an astounding 300,000 of the one million deaths said Miles, who just returned from a trip to that country last week. On the other end of the economic spectrum, the United States has by far the most first day deaths in the industrialized world. An estimated 11,300 newborns die each year in the U.S. on the day of their birth, 50% more than all other industrialized nations combined.

As Save the Children found, four simple products: resuscitation devices to help babies breathe, the antiseptic chlorhexidine to prevent umbilical cord infections, injectable antibiotics to treat infections, and antenatal steroid injections to help preterm babies’ lungs develop, can mean the difference between life and death. They all range in price from 13 cents to $6.

“The research we’ve done recently has said ‘we know why these kids are dying, we know what to do’, we just have to get those interventions to where moms and babies need them,” Miles told me. When I asked her if there’s a practical way to deliver those interventions, her answer was yes.

“There are couple of things that are key,” she explained. “One is political will — not only in the donor countries like the United States, and the U.K. and Germany, to continue to fund those kinds of programs — but also in the countries where kids are dying. The leadership in those countries really has to say, ‘Our kids do not need to die.’ It can’t be an accepted thing that we lose a million newborns on the first day. It just can’t be accepted. That’s what we’ve got to change. It can’t be acceptable anymore for that to happen.”

Take a look at this video to see the survival story of another little baby and his mother in Uganda:

Countries like Uganda, which last October pledged to improve prenatal and childbirth care, are moving in the right direction. Along with the governments of Nepal, Bangladesh, Malawi and Ethiopia — some of the poorest countries on Earth — they are showing that it can be done. In the past year, in fact, 170 countries signed on to A Promise Renewed, a global commitment to end child mortality within a generation.

“It’s hard to imagine the depth of one mother’s pain in losing her baby the very day she gives birth, let alone a million times over,” Miles said. “Yet this report is full of hope. It shows there is a growing movement to save newborn lives and growing evidence that we can do it.”

But it will take a lot more than hope to save lives. It will take, as Miles said, political will. It will take the courage to address the underlying causes of infant mortality and lack of heath care, such as gender inequality, education for girls and pregnant women, and proper nutrition. It will also take funding, and the commitment to deliver these very tangible solutions to those who need them most: newborns like the little girl resting in her incubator in Uganda as her lungs grow stronger, thanks to her government’s promise to increase the availability of and access to quality care to the smallest and most innocent lives.


Photo courtesy of Save the Children


Alicia Westberry
Alicia Westberry4 years ago

Good luck getting political will and funding. Politicians spend so much time arguing with each other that they are practically ineffective. Not enough people within the third-world countries care to try to fix the problem. Those that do, such as the mothers that have to mourn their babies shortly after giving birth, don't know enough to ask how to give birth to healthy, full-term babies that will survive to become adults.

Dennis D.
Past Member 4 years ago

Sarah H. Gosnel has been sentenced to three life sentence. Plus still has to face the federal drug charges. Justice has been served.

Sarah Hill
Sarah Hill4 years ago

What about the babies that Gosnell killed? Where is the outrage for that?

Michael H.
Mike H4 years ago

That's a short life!

Vivian Birdwell
Vivian B4 years ago

Unbelievable the amount of children dying on their first day of life!!

Andy Kadir-buxton

The Buxton Handclap Method of delivering babies that minimises birth trauma to both mother and baby is used in various Third World countries, and according to one statistic quoted in 'New Scientist' would lead to an improvement in IQ of 15 points over natural child birth, and thus minimise intellectual impairment caused by difficult child birth.

With The Buxton Handclap Method at the onset of labour, the birth canal is held open by the hands of the deliverer. (Body building will increased the strength of the deliverer so that they are strong enough to carry out the Method.) The baby can be manipulated into position with the head down from any position by the deliverer holding the birth canal open with one hand and the side of the arm on the other side, leaving one hand free to do any necessary moving of the baby. In the event of the umbilical cord being wrapped around the baby's neck this can be corrected. When everything is as it should be the baby can be gently slid out by hooking the fingers around the chin.

Once delivered the baby can then be tickled to ensure it's airways are clear.

Pamela Tracy
Pamela Tracy4 years ago

The USA should be ashamed of having the highest infant mortality rate, but that can only be among the first world countries. Too many babies die each day or before 5 years old in Africa and Asian countries and of course we never get the right count because too many babies are still born outside of any hospital in Africa and Asia.

Uddhab Khadka
Uddhab Khadka4 years ago

Thank you.

Lydia Weissmuller Price

I wish we could have the option of using butterfly credits to purchase life-saving equipment and medications for these babies.

Lauren French
Lauren French4 years ago

The US has the highest infant mortality rate in the developed world because its citizens do not have universal access to free/affordable healthcare. Simple as. Western Europe, which is where I live, has the lowest because states such as the UK, Norway, France, etc have excellent infrastructure for delivering healthcare. Yes we have our issues with the NHS in the UK, and unfortunately our current government is trying to privatise the system so I guess soon the UK could be joining the US with high rates of baby deaths. But currently, when a baby is born, and if they need an operation, all the doctors need is the parents' consent to operate on their child.