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Helping newborns through song

Instead of drugs or fancy devices, a small village in India is using dhollak and dafali — drums traditional to the region — to spread awareness about post-natal care and to battle infant mortality. As Becky Bach explains in the latest issue of Stanford Medicine magazine, the effort started as part of a public-health research project led by researchers Gary Darmstadt, MD, and Vishwajeet Kumar, MBBS, who partnered with community leaders in an effort to communicate evidence-based health practices:

In a groundbreaking endeavor, [Darmstadt's] team worked with communities to slash newborn mortality by 54 percent in less than two years in a large, impoverished area in northern India called Shivgarh.

Their strategy was simple, in principle: embrace the local culture, seek to understand its newborn-care practices, and partner with the community to translate evidence-based recommendations into meaningful communications — metaphors, songs — that could change behavior.

“Songs have traditionally played a key role in the community as a medium for transferring cultural knowledge inter-generationally and within groups,”  Vishwajeet Kumar, director of the Community Empowerment Lab in Shivgarh, told me. In the above video, a group of women, some holding infants, sing about the importance of skin-to-skin care:

Pregnant women and mothers-in-law, who play a critical role in perpetuating the community’s childbirth traditions, were shown how to provide skin-to-skin care, a simple practice that involves placing the bare-skinned baby on the caregiver’s skin, providing love, warmth and access to nourishment. The practice produces immediate, tangible benefits: It improves babies’ color and temperature, and reduces crying and startle responses. The villagers interpreted these signs as the absence of evil spirits, reinforcing their willingness to embrace the change.

A talented local songwriter named Santosh Kumar is responsible for many of these songs, which combine global knowledge with local wisdom, said Vishwajeet Kumar. He works in collaboration with the community to organize gatherings where important early care practices, from sanitation to breastfeeding, are conveyed through his songs.

The story of Shivgarh is a reminder that sometimes health is about more than doctors and big facilities. Sometimes the final puzzle piece can take the form of knowledge and a dedicated community.

Lindzi Wessel is a former neuroscience researcher and current student in the UC Santa Cruz Science Communication Program. She is an intern in the medical school’s Office of Communication and Public Affairs.

Previously: Stanford Medicine magazine tells why a healthy childhood matters and Countdown to Childx: Global health expert Gary Darmstadt on improving newborn survival

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