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Helping Babies Breathe Program Saves Lives


A newborn baby’s first cry is the sound mothers and medical staff hold their breath to hear. Now the Helping Babies Breathe program offers healthcare workers in developing countries simple ways to help newborns start breathing within the critical first minute of life and to save lives.

Helping Babies Breathe program lowers mortality

Birth asphyxia (neonatal asphyxia), the failure to initiate or sustain spontaneous breathing immediately after birth, causes approximately 1 million deaths among newborns each year in developing areas of the world. Some of the causes of birth asphyxia may include insufficient oxygen levels in the mother’s blood, compression of the umbilical cord, malformation of the lungs or breathing muscles, airway obstruction (e.g., blood, fluids), low blood pressure in the mother, early separation of the placenta from the uterus, and poor placenta function.

At the Pediatric Academic Societies annual meeting in Denver, details of the Helping Babies Breathe program were presented on May 3. The program was piloted in Tanzania in September 2009, where physicians, assistant medical officers, medical and nursing students, and nurse midwives were taught how to evaluate newborns and stimulate breathing immediately after birth.

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The program and the accompanying literature were designed to be culturally sensitive and to be used in areas where oxygen, intubation, chest compression, and medications are not available or feasible. Techniques in the program are supposed to be initiated within the first minute of life and include rubbing the infant dry, keeping the infant warm, and suctioning the infant’s mouth. Healthcare workers are also taught to initiate face mask ventilation if an infant does not begin breathing within “The Golden Minute.”

A study of the program involved four hospitals, from which data were gathered for three months before and three to four months after the program was implemented. Within that time, infant mortality declined 50 percent, from 13.4 deaths per 1,000 births to 6.3 deaths per 1,000 births.

According to study co-author Jeffrey M. Perlman, MD, FAAP, professor of pediatrics at Weill Cornell Medical College and division chief of new born medicine at New York Presbyterian Hospital, “if these findings are sustained, then this represents for the first time a reversal of birth asphyxia-related mortality.”

Helping Babies Breathe is a collaborative effort and is an initiative of the American Academy of Pediatrics and other health partners from around the world, including the World Health Organization.

Msemo G et al. The Helping Babies Breathe (HBB) Program…abstract