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5 Ways to Save Newborns' Lives

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In the past two decades, the world has seen a dramatic reduction in childhood deaths. Compared to 1990, in 2012 (the latest year for which we have complete data), 47% fewer kids died before the age of 5. Globally, more women survive pregnancy and childbirth, and more children survive their early years than at any point in history.

This is a great accomplishment, but there's an equally big problem—newborn babies account for 43% of all deaths of children under age 5. Most of the progress we've made in improving health for children and mothers simply has not made it to newborns. Here are five research-backed ways to help newborns survive.

1. Encourage Breastfeeding

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Breastfeeding is a powerful, simple, and proven way to help newborns survive. UNICEF provides some statistics (emphasis added):

Children who are exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life are 14 times more likely to survive than non-breastfed children.

Studies show that initiating breastfeeding immediately after birth can reduce the risk of newborn death by up to 20 per cent, by boosting the child’s immune system.

But what's so special about breastfeeding? In the first few hours and days after a baby is born, the mother produces colostrum, a special form of milk that is a powerful immune system booster for the baby. When mothers begin breastfeeding immediately after birth, this boost is passed along to the newborn. The best health outcomes come when breastfeeding is both immediate and exclusive for the first six months of the newborn's life.

So what can we do to encourage breastfeeding? According to a study published last year in The Lancet, "Counselling, education and support can increase exclusive breastfeeding rates among children less than six months old by up to 90 per cent." Put simply, explaining the benefits of breastfeeding and supporting mothers through the process can make the difference.

2. Make Direct Skin-to-Skin Contact

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Direct skin-to-skin contact between baby and mother (or father) after birth can have a dramatic positive effect on the newborn's longterm health. Part of the benefit is that the newborn is exposed to the same bacteria as the parent, helping to establish a healthy immune system. But there are other benefits too—skin-to-skin contact can help improve a newborn's temperature, respiration, and heart rate. (Skin-to-skin contact with the baby also has benefits for the mother and father as well, including reductions in parental stress and depression.)

All babies can benefit from direct contact with their mothers' skin, but it's especially important with low-birthweight or preterm babies. A method dubbed "Kangaroo Mother Care" encourages mothers of these high-risk babies to frequently and exclusively breastfeed, while maintaining plenty of skin-to-skin contact. According to the International Breastfeeding Center, a baby given skin-to-skin contact:

• Is more likely to latch on

• Is more likely to latch on well

• Maintains his body temperature normal better even than in an incubator

• Maintains his heart rate, respiratory rate and blood pressure normal

• Has higher blood sugar

• Is less likely to cry

• Is more likely to breastfeed exclusively and breastfeed longer

• Will indicate to his mother when he is ready to feed

Costs nothing, can be done with no equipment at all, and helps everybody involved? Sounds like a winner to me.

3. Clean the Umbilical Cord

When the umbilical cord is cut after a baby is born, that cut can be an entry point for infections. The common "dry" method of cutting the cord can leave the baby's belly button exposed to infection. Using a dash of the antiseptic chlorhexidine on the cut provides extra protection for the baby, and in many parts of the world, means the difference between life and death. Here are some statistics from medical studies bearing this out (emphasis added):

Nepal: 24% reduction in newborn mortality when community health workers applied chlorhexidine to the cord during home visits. This intervention can be successfully incorporated into maternal and newborn care programs using [the] existing cadre of female community health volunteers. (The Lancet, March 2006)

Pakistan: When chlorhexidine was recommended and provided by traditional birth attendants to families, risk of newborn infection dropped by 42%, and neonatal mortality reduced by nearly 40%. (The Lancet, March 2012)

Meta-Analysis: Application of any CHX [chlorhexidine] to the umbilical cord of the newborn led to a 23% reduction in all-cause neonatal mortality in the intervention group compared to control.... (BMC Public Health, September 2013)

The simple conclusion here? An inexpensive disinfectant, applied once, saves newborns' lives.

4. Use Antenatal Corticosteroids (ACS) for Preterm Babies

Babies born prematurely face greater risks than full-term babies—and more than 1 in 10 babies worldwide are born preterm. According to Healthy Newborn Network, "over 1 million children die each year due to complications of preterm birth." But we have medicine that can dramatically improve the odds.

The Healthy Newborn Network breaks it down (emphasis added):

Antenatal corticosteroids (ACS) are a class of drugs which can reduce the risk of preterm death by more than 50% in facilities where ventilation support technologies are not available, and by roughly 30% even where advanced Neonatal Intensive Care Units (NICUs) are available.

These drugs are among the best documented, most effective, safest, and least expensive interventions we have to reduce preterm deaths. Antenatal steroids are now identified by the UN-led Commission on Life-Saving Commodities for Women and Children as an essential medicine that should be available everywhere.

The use of ACS is also supported by The National Institutes of Health as well as The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists' Committee on Obstetric Practice.

5. Choose When to Become Pregnant

When births are spaced out by three or more years, the later siblings have a much better shot at life (though their odds of being on the same high school sports teams as their older brothers and sisters are pretty much nil). According to the Healthy Newborn Network, "Children born less than two years after a sibling are two times more likely to die within the first year of life than those born 3 or more years later." The reason for this is simple: birth spacing allows the mother to devote her energy to breastfeeding and caring directly for one baby at a time in the crucial first and second years of life. Birth spacing benefits the mother, the existing child (or children) and the new baby.

Another factor here is mothers bearing children while the mothers are too young. Again quoting the HNN (emphasis added): "More than 1 million babies born to adolescent girls [each year] die before their first birthday. In developing countries, if a mother is under 18, her baby's chance of dying in the first year of life is 60% higher than that of a baby born to a mother older than 19." What's more, reducing adolescent pregnancies keeps more girls in school; this raises their earnings over a lifetime, benefiting not just them, but their families and communities down the line.

According to The London Summit on Family Planning:

By 2020, if 120 million more women who want contraceptives could get them, there would be:

• More than 100 million fewer unintended pregnancies

• 200,000 fewer women and girls dying in pregnancy and childbirth

• Over 50 million fewer abortions

• Nearly 3 million fewer babies dying in their first year of life

Giving women the means to space their pregnancies would decrease deaths of children under age 5 by 25%. That's a goal worth fighting for.

The Every Newborn Action Plan

On May 19, the Every Newborn Action Plan will be presented to the World Health Organization. This is the start of the first-ever global initiative to improve newborn health and save lives. If this issue speaks to you, the Every Newborn toolkit is well worth a read.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Sponsor Content: BarkBox
8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.