Spreading Warmth

Posted on February 18, 2014, by Erin O'Donohue, Embrace

The single most dangerous day of a child’s life is the day that they’re born. Every year, more than 1 million infants die on their first day in the world, and over 3 million within their first few weeks. What’s the leading cause of these deaths? Complications related to prematurity and low birth weight, including hypothermia. 

When infants are born prematurely, many are unable to regulate their own body heat — so room temperature can feel freezing cold. In the developed world, these babies would be placed into an incubator until they’re able to make it on their own. That’s what happened to my own son. It was a difficult experience, but also a common one. And because we had access to health care and modern technology, I watched him quickly grow healthy and strong. But if he or I had been born elsewhere in the world, that wouldn’t necessarily have been the case.


Low birth weight newborn infant at Mulago Hospital in Uganda.

Over 98 percent of newborn deaths occur in developing countries, where access to incubators is not something that can be taken for granted. Anyone who’s a parent, or who has children in their life, can relate to the fact that you will do anything to protect your child. So we hear heartbreaking stories from all over the world: mothers and fathers who wrap their hypothermic infants in blankets with hot water bottles that wind up scalding them, have them sleep near dangerous stoves or fires, or place them under bare light bulbs that can shatter when overheated. Many of these babies die, and those that survive often suffer from chronic and debilitating health issues. 

Any time a child dies, it’s a tragedy. But what’s especially tragic about children dying of causes related to low birth weight, is that by and large these deaths are preventable. It’s been estimated that 75 percent could be easily prevented without access to intensive care. 

So our nonprofit organization, Embrace, set out to develop a simple, scalable solution. Our infant warmer device is portable, reusable, safe, and effective. And most important of all, it costs less than 1 percent of the price of the incubator my son was in. 


A mother at the Mulago Hospital in Uganda holds infant in Embrace warmer.

We donate the infant warmer device to communities in need through partnerships with NGOs, hospitals, and local governments. We’ve reached over 50,000 low birth weight and premature infants so far, and plan to reach 150,000 by the end of 2014. 

Yet we also recognize that technology alone is not enough to solve complex problems like neonatal hypothermia. So we also set up Embrace programs to integrate the warmer with side-by-side education for mothers, families, and health care workers. So far we’ve educated over 5,000 people on hypothermia and related newborn health topics, including hands-on training in Kangaroo Care (skin-to-skin contact).


Embrace site manager at Mulago Hospital in Uganda assists new mother with Kangaroo Care.

To date, we’ve set up 22 Embrace programs in 11 countries on 3 continents. We were recently honored to bring Embrace infant warmers to Edna Adan Hospital in Somaliland, through our partner organization Nurses for Edna.


A mother at the Edna Adan Hospital in Somaliland holds infant in Embrace warmer.

Hawa was one of the first mothers to use Embrace in Somaliland. She had an extremely difficult labor and was unconscious when her son Khalid was born.  Khalid was severely hypothermic and weighed just 2 kg. He was immediately placed in an Embrace warmer, and both mother and son stabilized under the incredible care of the staff at Edna Adan Hospital. As Hawa later told us, “I couldn’t keep my baby close while I was unconscious.  So this warmer replaced me for him and gave him the warmth he needed.”


Khalid in the Embrace warmer. Just 2 kg when born, he's now thriving.

Khalid survived and is now thriving. But millions of other children each year still die preventable deaths related to prematurity and low birth weight. At Embrace, we believe that every woman and child deserves an equal chance for a healthy life. The difference between a child living and dying should not be an accident of their birth. Not when there are options that can easily and inexpensively bridge that gap. This is a problem we can begin solving together.   


Erin O'Donohue is executive director of Embrace, a nonprofit that advances maternal and child health by delivering innovative solutions to the world’s most vulnerable populations. Connect with Embrace on Facebook and Twitter.