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Impact Story

Dec 1, 2011

Kenya: Helping Baby Job Breathe


By Sherri Bucher for ABC’s Million Moms Challenge

After a long and difficult labor, first-time mother Emily looked down to greet her child, a baby boy, and saw a limp, lifeless body. What should have been a moment of great joy turned into a terrifying struggle to breathe life into her newborn son.

Each year one million babies—nearly 3,000 each day—die because they don’t receive enough oxygen before, during or just after birth. The condition, known as birth asphyxia, is usually easily managed; the basic treatment procedures do not require any fancy equipment, expensive drugs or medical training.
The vast majority of newborn deaths from birth asphyxia occur in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia where too many women give birth at home without trained health professionals; or in hospitals where the equipment is not readily available or the healthcare staff has not been trained to respond appropriately.

Thankfully the maternity ward staff at Bokoli Hospital in Kenya, where Emily delivered her baby, had the skills they needed to respond to her son’s birth asphyxia because they participated in a training program called Helping Babies Breathe.

Nurse Mary Wekesa cleared Baby Job’s airway by suctioning thick mucus from his mouth and nose. She dried him vigorously, cut the umbilical cord, and transferred the limp newborn to a dry blanket.
As Mary worked to revive the unresponsive infant, Emily asked repeatedly if her baby was dead. Emily’s mother, who witnessed Job’s birth, sobbed inconsolably.

Josephine Wanyama, a hospital technician assisting Mary, whispered, “This baby will die. It’s not breathing.”

Mary responded, “Let us try. This kid might come back.”

Mary wrapped the motionless baby in the dry blanket, leaving his chest exposed. She placed a circular rubber mask over his bluish mouth and nose and squeezed a bulb-like attachment that made his chest rise and fall as air inflated his lungs.

Mary instructed Josephine to use the newborn’s umbilical stump to monitor his heart rate. Josephine counted each pulse out loud. Every heart beat signaled hope.

Suddenly, the loud cries of baby Job rang through the maternity ward. His grandmother’s sobs were replaced by shouts of joy. Job began to breathe on his own thanks to the efforts of Mary and Josephine, who were able to respond because they received proper training and had all of the necessary equipment.

Emily was able to leave Bokoli Hospital carrying Baby Job in her arms, and happily began making plans and dreaming about a bright future for her new family.

Helping Babies Breathe was developed by the American Academy of Pediatrics and partners, USAID, NICHD, Save the Children, and Laerdal Foundation, with the goal to teach anyone, anywhere, how to help newborns breathe. A collaborative team from Indiana and Moi Universities has provided Helping Babies Breathe training to hundreds of Kenyan hospital staff.

The Government of Kenya is dedicated to improving the health of mothers and babies, and motivated to achieve millennium development goals, including reduction of child mortality. As part of these commitments, the Ministries of Health are leading efforts to integrate Helping Babies Breathe into existing maternal-newborn health initiatives. Helping Babies Breathe has been incorporated into Kenya’s national guidelines for pediatric emergency care, and health officials are ensuring that essential knowledge and skills are integrated with other newborn care training programs. Eventually, Helping Babies Breathe will be disseminated to doctors and nurses throughout Kenya.

In the words of Nurse Mary Wekesa: “It’s encouraging. We are happy. It’s a simple skill. And it is saving many babies.”

Take Action: Find out how you can help babies breathe by visiting:

Sherri Bucher, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Research in the Department of Pediatrics at Indiana University School of Medicine. Contact her at For more information about Helping Babies Breathe, go to