Background: Every year four million babies die in the first month of life and a quarter of these take place in India. A package of essential newborn care practices exists, which has a proven impact on reducing mortality, and can be implemented in low resource settings. However, childbirth and the neonatal period are culturally important times, during which there is strong adherence to traditional practices. Successful implementation of the package therefore requires in-depth knowledge of the local context and tailored behaviour change communication.
Methods: This study was carried out in rural Karnataka, India. It uses quantitative data from a prospective survey following mothers through their experience of pregnancy and the postnatal period; and qualitative data from in depth interviews and focus group discussions conducted with mothers, grandmothers and birth attendants. It explores local newborn care practices and beliefs, analyses their harmful or beneficial characteristics and elucidates areas of potential resistance to behaviour change and implementation of the essential newborn care package.
Results: Findings show that many potentially harmful newborn care practices are being carried out in the study area, such as unhygienic cord cutting, delayed breastfeeding and early bathing. Some are more amenable to change than others, depending on the strength of the underlying beliefs, and acceptability of alternative care. However, movement away from traditional practices is already taking place, particularly amongst the more educated and better off, and there is a clear opportunity to broaden, direct and accelerate this process.
Conclusion: Community education should be a focus of the National Rural Health Mission (NRHM) and Integrated Management of Neonatal and Childhood Illness (IMNCI) program being implemented in Karnataka. The added capacity of the new Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHAs) could enable more women to be reached. With careful tailoring of behaviour change messages to the local context, government outreach workers can become effective brokers of positive change and significant improvements in home newborn care and neonatal mortality are possible.