Bonding for Life: How UNICEF and Astellas Global Health Foundation are Supporting Mothers and Babies in the Dominican Republic

A Mother’s Experience Highlights Impact of UNICEF’s Efforts to Improve Maternal and Neonatal Survival Outcomes in Vulnerable Communities

When Maria* gave birth to a beautiful 30-week-old baby girl, she was extremely nervous as she knew extra care would be needed to ensure her daughter would thrive after her early arrival. Fortunately, UNICEF was there to help. UNICEF’s Mothers and Babies in Good Care Initiative, with support from the Astellas Global Health Foundation, enabled Maria’s hospital to provide education on breastfeeding and the practice of “kangaroo care” – skin-to-skin contact between mothers and their babies, which helps premature babies stay warm, regulate their heartbeat and enhances bonding between parent and child – all critical for a healthy start.

As one of the first programs supported by the Astellas Global Health Foundation in 2019, the Mothers and Babies in Good Care Initiative works to address extensive supportive care needs for pregnant mothers and their newborns in the Dominican Republic and improve the country’s maternal and newborn survival rate. Approximately 200 pregnant women and 4,000 newborns die during or immediately following childbirth each year, which is one of the highest rates in the Latin America and Caribbean region, despite access to national prenatal and birthing care.

Over the past three years, the Mothers and Babies in Good Care Initiative has been supporting Dominican Republic health care personnel to improve outcomes for mothers and newborns at the 10 hospitals across the country that have historically seen the highest risk. The goals: to be more supportive and responsive to the needs of pregnant and new mothers; work to ensure quality standards in prenatal care, labor, birth and newborn care; and support breastfeeding.

Exclusive breastfeeding can improve neonatal survival rates and is the foundation of good nutrition that facilitates growth, healthy brain development and improved cognitive performance. Breastmilk also contains antibodies that may help breastfed children combat illnesses. Yet only four percent of babies in the Dominican Republic are exclusively breastfed during the first six-month window, which is the lowest rate in the Caribbean region and among the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world . Research points to a variety of contributing factors, including social and cultural norms, inadequate education on breastfeeding and breastfeeding techniques, and even economic kickbacks to health personnel to offer breastmilk substitutes.

To address the need for improved breastfeeding adoption, the UNICEF Mothers and Babies in Good Care Initiative applied funds from the Astellas Global Health Foundation to expand implementation of breastfeeding education and kangaroo care, with supported efforts helping more than 25,000 newborns. Kangaroo care involves wrapping babies with a cloth to hold them close to a parent’s skin like a kangaroo pouch, an approach proven to significantly raise neonatal survival rates. The skin-to-skin contact and positioning can also enhance bonding and help establish good breastfeeding practices.

Since the program began, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated existing challenges facing mothers and newborns, overwhelming hospitals, accelerating staff turnover, driving up shortages of skilled healthcare personnel, and contributing to an economic crisis that has forced many families to cut back on essential health and food expenditures. As a result, the Mothers and Babies in Good Care Initiative has become more important than ever. As COVID-19 continues to destabilize health services, it is critical that every pregnant mother receives the support she needs to give birth safely, and care for her newborn.

In 2022, Astellas Global Health Foundation funds continue to support efforts to increase monitoring of care, conducting training courses to improve quality of care, facilitating communication and collaboration across participating hospitals. Efforts also include promoting birth registration, which is essential for the future health and well-being of newborns who need proof of citizenship to access health, education and other social benefits.

As an additional measure focused on maternal and neonatal protection, UNICEF also used funds from the Astellas Global Health Foundation to provide personal protective equipment (PPE) and COVID-19 education for pregnant and breastfeeding women and families in the Dominican Republic.

As Maria cradled her baby to her chest with her husband at her side, she shared her gratitude for the direct impact UNICEF programming offers: “It helps children and newborns a lot so they can have a better quality of life and growth.”

To learn more about how UNICEF continues to play a central role in helping vulnerable children and families, visit the UNICEF website.

*Name has been changed.