Giving children in Papua New Guinea the best start in life

An Australian volunteer maternal, child and health nurse, midwife and lactation consultant is working with health workers in PNG to share vital post-natal care.

Karen Heyward has spent her career working in maternal and post-natal care, and knows well the importance of babies having the very best start to life. She’s taken her expertise to Wewak in Papua New Guinea, where she’s volunteering with WaterAid, supporting her colleagues to deliver key information to health and community workers in the East Sepik Province. Here’s Karen’s story.

My parents lived here in Wewak when I was a teenager, so I lived here for about four years in my teenage-hood.

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Australian volunteer Karen Heyward (right) with Winnie Sagiu, District Environment and Health Officer of WaterAid in Wewak, Papua New Guinea. Photo: Harjono Djoyobisono
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Photo two: Beach-side market in Wewak, Papua New Guinea. Photo: Harjono Djoyobisono

I decided to come back about four years ago, and I realised I had information that could change the lives of women and children here, and I wanted to share it.

I started doing some volunteer work in this province, focusing on safe birth and safe motherhood. When I found out this assignment was coming up – as a maternal and child health and hygiene mentor - and it was in a district that was close to my heart, and a subject that was close to my heart – I put up my hand up to volunteer. I’m so glad I did.

A good start to life makes such a big difference to a child’s and an adult’s life experience.

I’m a maternal and child health nurse, a midwife and a lactation consultant. So, I have spent a lot of my focus on post-natal care of women, and breastfeeding in particular.

A good start in life helps a person to make better choices, leads to them having a better education, and makes the world go around a bit more peacefully.

— Karen Heyward

The statistics globally for infant stunting, where children don’t grow to their full potential physically or mentally, are alarming – they’re one in three. But in Papua New Guinea the statistics are closer to one in two. That means every second child has a problem with growth and development. WaterAid has recognised this, along with many other NGOs and the Papua New Guinea Government.

A large part of my role is sharing what I know with my colleagues so they can see where this information can fit into the district WASH plan.

WaterAid requested a volunteer with my skills because it wants communities and health workers to understand the importance of both good nutrition and WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene).

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Karen Heyward (right) with Melissa Steven, Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Program Officer of WaterAid, Wewak. Photo: Harjono Djoyobisono
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View of Wewak, Papua New Guinea. Photo: Victoria George

Our aim is to give children the best start in life. Breastfeeding and eating nutritious foods is an important part of this. But equally, if children are consuming food or water that is contaminated with bacteria, or they and the people feeding them aren’t practicing good hand and food hygiene, this can cause diarrhea. In the longer term, this exposure to bacteria can prevent absorption of nutrients, exacerbating the problem. Both elements are critical to tackling malnutrition and reducing stunting.

The messages I’m teaching in particular are around breastfeeding, infant nutrition and hygiene.

The World Health Organization has some recommendations about breastfeeding. The first one is that babies are given a breastfeed within one hour of birth, which is tricky to monitor.

We understand that babies are breastfed within the first hour, but there are often other things that happen – for example the babies get washed, or there might be a ceremony, or the babies get taken away to be weighed, or have injections. 

Those things can stop the really important time of bonding and breastfeeding between the baby and the mother. So, breastfeeding in the first hour is really important.

The second piece of information we want to get out there is that babies need to breastfeed exclusively for the first six months.

We find that although people in the area do breastfeed their babies for the first six months, sometimes they may have actually been giving their babies other things in that time as well.

They may be mashing up sweet potato or banana for example, and this interferes with the baby’s ability to stay well and to absorb nutrients.

Introducing mixed foods after six months is fine, it’s normal – but you need to keep breastfeeding your baby, because the breastmilk has protective qualities in it. It has immune properties for the baby to not only fight germs, but to grow their immune system and stay safe.

 

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Beach in Wewak, Papua New Guinea. Photo: Harjono Djoyobisono
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Karen Heyward at Wom village, Wewak, doing health planning with (left to right) community member Debora Namkoi and Water Aid staff Winnie Sagiu and Melissa Steven. Photo: Harjono Djoyobisono

The World Health Organization recommends babies are breastfed up until two years of age, or beyond.

We work with communities to ensure they use clean water, also how they manage their infants’ hygiene, how they transport and store water, how animals are penned, and whether girls and boys are fed with equal importance.

I would like to see all frontline workers, community leaders and parents have this information and share it passionately with their communities, and I would love to see the communities take the messages on-board, for improved health, education and life opportunities.

— Karen Heyward

We’re looking at ways to teach this information easily so that people who aren’t healthcare workers can understand it and relay that information to the community.