Monday, December 10, 2012

Doula Mom on a Mission to Make Birth Safe in Laos

Recently, Kristyn asked me to spread the word about the project she founded - Clean Birth kits! The kits are aimed at preventing birth-related infections, which kill 1 million moms and babies each year worldwide.  In Laos, where maternal and infant mortality rates are abysmal (MMR worse than Afghanistan!), 80% of women give birth at home without a skilled attendant.  The kits, which cost $5 including the cost of training local community health workers, give mothers the supplies needed to protect themselves and their babies from infection.

Kristyn recently traveled to Laos, and she has shared her story with me!

Doula Mom on a Mission to Make Birth Safe in Laos By Kristyn Zalota
It’s hard to believe than less than two weeks ago, I was bumping through a river in a 4-wheel drive truck en route to a remote ethnic minority village in Laos.  Now, back at home, I am reflecting on this amazing journey, which feels like the culmination of my personal odyssey from mother to doula to safe birth activist.

In 2009-10, while living with my husband and then 1-year-old and 4-year-old on the Thai-Burma border, I witnessed the inadequate pre- and post-natal care available to poor women.  Later, as a doula in Uganda, I discovered Clean Birth Kits (CBKs), basic birthing supplies that prevent birth-related infection in mothers and babies.

These experiences led me to research CBKs and their impact on maternal and infant mortality.  I found that Laos, a country I had visited many times while living in Thailand, has worse-than-Afghanistan rates of maternal and infant mortality rates and could be served by the kits.  So, I emailed several Lao organizations and offered to donate kits and provide training.  One of them took me up on my offer.

Months later, kits and training materials in hand, I headed to southern Laos.  It took me 4 days to get there.  The morning after I arrived, we kicked off the Clean Birth Kits training.  Four nurses journeyed from their posts in remote Tahoy (ethnic minority) villages to attend.   They were eager to learn: they asked questions, challenged ideas, and helped adapt the program to match needs on the ground.  I was impressed with their professionalism and commitment to introducing Clean Birth Kits, which they agreed “the mothers would be happy to use.

In the days after the training, we visited a number of Tahoy villages.   The clinics were spare:  little to offer in terms of medicines, equipment consists of wood slat beds, and refrigeration was not available.  The villages were from another time: too many naked kids to count, bamboo dwellings on stilts, no electricity, not a single store.  The people are still living as they have for centuries: rodents and roots supplement newly-introduced subsistence rice farming.

I learned from the nurses that birthing is steeped in religious tradition, often with fatal consequences.  Due to animist religious beliefs, women and girls give birth alone in the forest.  The nurses suggested starting a “Safe Birth Outreach” program to educate women and families about the dangers of birthing alone, how to make birth safe using the Clean Birth Kits, the need for breastfeeding, etc…

The nurses have also requested that develop illustrated posters to be hung in villages that caution against harmful behaviors in pregnancy (e.g. smoking), explain the warning signs of possible problems (e.g. pre-eclampsia) and show hygienic birthing practices using the Clean Birth Kits.

Now, at home, I am committed to giving my Lao partner organization and the Tahoy nurses the funds and supplies they need to improve maternal and infant health.  I feel lucky to support them in their work.  Every mother deserves the chance to survive birth and to give her baby the best start.  For just a few dollars, we can make that happen.

Please consider donating Clean Birth Kits at  Looking for a holiday gift that keeps on giving?  Give a donation of $25, which supports 5 mothers, and get a beautiful card to give as a gift:
Thank you for reading.

Kristyn Zalota is the founder of, a non-profit working to improve maternal and infant health in Laos.  She is a doula and childbirth educator who lives with her husband and two kids in New Haven, CT. Read more about her trip to Laos on her blog: 

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