Why I watched live births in Vietnam

As a Master of Public Health student at USC, I am concentrating my public health studies on Global Health Leadership. I have always had an interest in global affairs with an eye toward international development and humanitarian relief work so this major for me is a natural fit. What I like about the global health program at USC is that it is general enough that you can learn a lot about many topics – global health policy and governance, maternal and child health, infectious diseases, non-communicable diseases, and other topics that have global relevancy. While I tend to be a generalist, preferring to focus on program planning, policy and governance, I chose to focus on maternal and child nutrition for my practicum. This seemed in line with my own personal interest in food, health, and nutrition.

The project I am interning with, Alive & Thrive, is an initiative to save lives, prevent illness, and ensure healthy growth and development through improved breastfeeding and complementary feeding practices. The project is managed by FHI360 (Family Health International), a US non-profit working in many countries around the world. The Alive & Thrive project in Vietnam has worked to advocate for more political support and funding  for infant and young child feeding programs.

One piece of their work is to equip healthcare facilities with the training and tools they need to carry out early essential newborn care, or EENC. Properly caring for a newborn at birth may seem intuitive to those of us who live in the US and have access to well-resourced hospitals and health care workers. But in the Western Pacific region, a baby dies every two minutes, usually within a few days of birth, and often times from preventable causes. Reasons for this are 1) babies are often taken away from their mothers in the moments after birth never receiving skin to skin contact; and, 2) babies are given milk formula or other breastmilk substitutes rather than being breastfed right away. EENC offers a set of interventions, including immediate thorough drying after birth, appropriate timing of cord clamping, skin-to-skin contact, and early initiation of breastfeeding, to benefit the health of both mothers and children. It also follows with counseling of mothers to exclusively breastfeed.

This is why I visited hospitals this week to watch mothers deliver babies into the world! Along with another intern, I watched doctors and midwives help deliver babies, both vaginal and C-section deliveries, and then initiate EENC right away.

Vietnam has become a leading country driving EENC practices. Nearly 9,000 health workers have been trained to carry out these interventions. Now, 78% of babies now receive skin-to-skin contact and early initiation of breastfeeding.

Side notes: This was my first time ever being in a hospital setting where I was not a patient but instead standing alongside health workers. It was also my first time watching an operation, a labor and delivery, and women breastfeeding newborns. After the C-section, I suddenly lost consciousness……AKA fainted! I am not usually one to have a weak stomach but the operating room was extremely hot and with a mask and scrubs on, it was difficult to get oxygen. I also was watching a stomach being cut open!

Another thought: we went to several hospitals this week and at each one, we were easily granted access into operating and delivery rooms. We followed Alive & Thrive staff into patient rooms to start conversations about their pre-delivery habits and whether they had been educated about the benefits of EENC and exclusive breastfeeding. There are many patients packed into one room so privacy is non-existent anyway…. but still, I felt like it was very intrusive. Some of the staff were taking photos and asking personal questions. I never witnessed the patients giving consent for this…. but maybe it was OK. My friends in the medical field in the US were shocked I was given this kind of access. A learning experience for sure!


Madison Webb is a Master of Public Health student at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. Her project, “Driving for Optimal Feeding Practices: Comparing Vietnam’s successes to India, Indonesia the Philippines, and Nigeria,” is funded by  the Anderson Family Global Health Immersion Fellowship

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