When Tradition And Health Come Head-To-Head

When I was just a few days old, I developed a burning fever accompanied by a terrible wail. My mother was worried. She wanted to take me to the hospital, which was 30 minutes away by bicycle. But my grandmother told her she was not allowed to leave the house.

My grandmother objected on the basis of zuo yuezi, a traditional Chinese practice of “sitting the month.” This set of practices is intended to help a woman recover during her first month postpartum. Chinese women, my mother included, have been following the rules of zuo yuezi for two thousand years.

As I got sicker, my mother chose to disregard her own mother’s opinion and take me to the hospital. And thank goodness she did; the doctor told my mother that she wouldn’t have been able to save me had she waited a day longer than she did.

My grandmother’s adherence to traditional practices came from a place of love, but not from a place of medical knowledge. Fast-forward to today, a time when women in China still find themselves trying to sort out which advice lovingly given by friends and family is medically sound and which isn’t.

Accessing reliable medical counsel is a particular challenge for rural women, who experience maternal and newborn mortality rates two to five times higher than urban women and often live hours from the closest county health clinics. In fact, while China is making strong progress towards achieving Millennium Development Goals 4 and 5 (PDF), the disparity between urban and rural women is holding progress back.

This is exactly where mHealth can make the biggest difference for pregnant women and mothers in China. And that’s why Johnson & Johnson teamed up with China’s National Center for Women and Children's Health and BabyCenter to launch Mom-Baby Messenger: a free text message service that provides women in rural areas with important information for maintaining a healthy pregnancy and caring for a newborn. The text messages also connect women to a hotline service provided by maternal and child health centers.

When we launched Mom-Baby Messenger in Beijing on March 8, the room was abuzz. Phones were dinging and buzzing with sign-ups. It was incredible to witness this program be embraced by so many women and families. Even better was hearing from women themselves.

"I am a bit nervous because I still feel unprepared to be a mother," expectant mom Zhang Yajun from Hebei Province in northern China told Women of China. "If the text messages on pregnancy and baby feeding are sent to expectant mothers like me, my whole family doesn't have to bother gathering information that we don't know to be right or wrong."

With Mom-Baby Messenger at her fingertips, Zhang won’t have to experience the uncertainty and fear that my mother faced. Instead, she can consult her stage-based text messages that include advice about danger signs, such as high fevers, and when to bring a newborn to the hospital. She can also call a hotline if she needs more information. Access to the trusted health information every new mother needs to keep herself and her infant healthy won’t be 30 minutes away by bicycle, or even more for rural women. It can now be in every woman’s pocket around the world.