Four reasons safe, clean water is vital for mums and babies

It's no surprise that medical care and advice during pregnancy, childbirth and the first two years of life are crucial. But what does water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) have to do with maternal and newborn health during this critical period? Megan Wilson-Jones, WaterAid’s Policy Analyst for Health and Hygiene, looks at four key times when these essential services can make a huge difference.

15 Dec 2015
Christina Emmanuel, 18, holding her three day old baby, who was delivered by caesarian section, at Kiomboi Hospital, Iramba, Tanzania, June 2015.
Christina, 18, holding her three-day-old baby, who was delivered by caesarian section, at Kiomboi Hospital, Iramba, Tanzania.

  1. During pregnanacy, good nutrition is the first step in reducing serious risks to the lives of mothers and babies. For example, iron-deficient anaemia, a major risk during pregnancy, can be caused by blood loss from parasitic infections. Parasite eggs can be transmitted through soil contaminated with human faeces.

    How WASH can help: 
    transmission of infections can be prevented by safe sanitation and good hygiene.
  2. Delivery and the days after birth are the most dangerous in a baby’s life. Around the world, almost half of all babies who die before the age of five are newborns. When needed, swift access to emergency obstetric and newborn care by a skilled birth attendant is critical to improving the chances of survival for both mothers and newborns. WASH plays an important role in this, yet an estimated 38% of healthcare facilities in developing countries lack access to safe water. 

    How WASH can help: adequate WASH means healthcare workers are much more able to provide quality care at and immediately after childbirth. Safe water keeps mothers and babies clean, and a hygienic environment (e.g. clean sheets, wards and equipment in health centres) help protect them from infection. 

  3. The late neonatal period (seven to 27 days of age) is also a very risky stage. At this age, newborns are especially vulnerable to life-threatening infections such as sepsis, pneumonia and tetanus. In the early days of life, babies’ immune systems are still developing, so they are less able to fight off infection. The World Health Organisation recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life, partly because important antibodies are transferred through breast milk to babies, providing critical protection against illness. 

    How WASH can help: clean household environments and play areas help prevent the spread of infections. Every minute a newborn baby dies from an infection which could be prevented by adequate WASH services. 

  4. During the first two years of life, a baby’s environment can dramatically impact on their exposure to disease and infection, and also their ability to absorb nutrients. Without WASH, children are more likely to be stunted (low height-for-age) because repeated diarrhoea and infections make them less able to absorb nutrients needed for growth. Long-term undernutrition negatively impacts on children’s physical, cognitive and social development and contributes to a cycle of poverty. 

    How WASH can help: safe disposal of faeces, handwashing at critical times (including before and after changing nappies, and before breastfeeding) is necessary to prevent the transmission of infections. Hygienic preparation of foods during complementary feeding (when foods are introduced alongside breastfeeding, typically between 18-24 months) is also important.

Healthcare for women and children during the first 1,000 days after births is complex, involving many key interventions at specific times and stages of care. 

However, one constant in this journey is the importance of WASH – it underpins the effectiveness of many interventions and ensures they have the biggest possible impact.

Without recognition of the critical role that water, sanitation and hygiene play in the early stages of life, efforts to improve the health and survival of mothers and newborns will be severely compromised.

Meet the midwives, mums and families delivering life against the odds in some of the world’s poorest and most remote communities >