THE BLOG
03/21/2012 06:14 pm ET Updated May 21, 2012

Establishing Healthier Traditions

Families routinely ignored pregnancy in Shivgarh, a district of the Uttar Pradesh region in India. Once you learn that a baby has a 75 percent chance of dying in his or her first week of life, it is easier to understand why.

Health workers spent months on site to better understand what was happening, as part of the "Shivgarh Project." They discovered a set of traditions that explained the horrific statistic: Mothers typically gave birth squatting over a mud floor and after delivery, all attention was given to the mother, leaving the child ignored and on the cold ground for up to 15 minutes; Breast milk was considered dirty and discarded; Mother and child were isolated in a room with smoky fires to ward off evil; and babies were 'bathed' in cold mud and ash to cleanse their skin, causing hypothermia.

How did these traditions develop, and how could this community's thinking be shifted? Women were in deep pain from this incredible level of loss, and they were ready to be heard. The opportunity for women to share their stories, feelings, and ideas led to powerful changes as the community tackled the issue together.

"Whenever they felt that their traditions, their values were being respected, they were more amenable to change. Respect was very core to it," said Dr. Vishwajeet Kumar, of the Shivgarh Project.

Listening was first. The health workers spoke with as many people as they could to learn more about these traditions, and asked the community for their help in spreading the word about safer practices, to help moms and their babies stay healthy. They engaged influential leaders, such as the priest who approved mothers to begin breastfeeding, and drawing on examples, shared new approaches for birth and child health through music and storytelling. One song compares ripening a mango to keeping a baby warm, a familiar symbol within this village.

Since the project began, newborn deaths have plummeted by 54 percent. Maternal death has been cut by 56 percent, a happy side effect. As mothers learned to care for their babies, they also took better care of themselves.

Dr Kumar's final thoughts are universal, "Babies all across the world... need warmth, they need love, and they need food. Every mother in the world wants to give these."

This post was originally featured on MillionsMomsChallenge.org.

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