Washington — Three times a day, 27-year-old Omari Ali breaks from his job repairing cars in Amani Freshi, a suburb of Zanzibar City, Zanzibar, and heads to the local health center to care for his newborn twin sons.
He opens his shirt, picks up one of the premature boys and straps the infant to his chest to give his son the skin-to-skin contact that will warm and sustain the child. His wife, Salma Issa, gave birth to the twins in her seventh month of pregnancy. The boys each weighed less than 1.5 kilograms.
What Ali does is called kangaroo mother care, named for the way kangaroos carry their young. It's a simple intervention developed in the mid-1980s by South American health providers who recognized how skin-to-skin contact can help premature infants thrive in places where incubators are not always available or reliable.
Seven percent of babies are born with low birth-weight in Zanzibar each year.
Teaching kangaroo care to parents such as Ali and Issa is one of the maternal- and infant-care services funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) through its Mothers and Infants, Safe, Healthy and Alive Program.
Health care provider Jhpiego, based in Baltimore, leads the program in collaboration with nonprofit Save the Children and Zanzibar's Ministry of Health and Social Welfare.
Parents learn how to give their babies skin-to-skin warmth and protect them from infection. They learn about the benefits of exclusive breastfeeding and the importance of follow-up care for newborns at a health care facility.
Ali demonstrates that, despite its name, kangaroo mother care is not just for women. "These are not my wife's children alone," said Ali, who spends three to four hours during every hospital visit. "They are ours, and I feel very proud to be assisting my wife.
Although I have to go to work, I make sure I am back at the hospital every few hours to hold one of the twins on my chest. This way the baby feels like it was in [the] womb, and continues to grow." Kangaroo care continues, usually with help from relatives, until the baby reaches a healthy weight.
Kangaroo mother care may be needed for a few days or several weeks. It can improve the well-being of babies born prematurely as well as those who are full term.
"Kangaroo mother care saved our twin boys," said the proud father.