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New Baby Basket to Keep Babies Safe and Warm

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The country of Malawi is known as the ‘warm heart’ of Africa... with mountain ranges reminiscent of south western Virginia.  And even though it’s warm much of the year, new born babies there too often die of hypothermia. That got a Virginia Tech grad student thinking about how to solve the problem in a low tech, sustainable way.  Robbie Harris has more.   

Four years ago, Ashley Taylor went to Malawi in south eastern Africa with her Mechanical Engineering colleagues from Virginia Tech.

“I’m from a very small town here in southwest Virginia and something about the mountains that maybe breeds small communities, I felt very at home in Malawi just like in  south western Virginia. 

Taylor has masters degree in mechanical engineering and another one in public health; two areas of study that you don’t often hear in the same sentence. but Taylor thinks you should.

“The field of engineering is really working to broaden the definition of engineering and moving away from the definition of just planes and trucks and engines - those things are awesome and there’s certainly a place for that and there are people that are passionate about that - but really working to broaden the definition of engineering to be much more about problem solving.

The problem she saw in a Malawi hospital was babies dying, from hypothermia

“A lot of folks don’t realize that even in places where it’s warm in the world, that babies still can get really cold.  Hypothermia is a big issue.”

She explains that to a newborn, 72 degrees feels like 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Babies are just too small to heat themselves. There aren’t enough blankets, let alone incubators in the hospitals to prevent their freezing to death.

“So on the plane ride back from Malawi, this time last year, I woke Dr. Kochersberger up in the middle of a nap -ran up to his seat- and said what if we put a team of students on this?”

Kochersberger students at first came up with what you could only call a baby pod, a frame made of PVC pipe, insulated with locally abundant chicken feathers all covered with a local fabric. Small enough to carry around, it could keep a baby’s body warm. But the pod could do the job, that first prototype was too sterile looking not quite the right fit for the warm heart of Africa according to the baby’s mothers.  And warmer to save lives, it had to be something people in Malawi would welcome. So the tech students asked the Malawian Moms what they thought the baby pod should be.

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Credit Wicker Paradise / Creative Commons
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“So one of the things that came up from the mothers, this was their idea, I have to give full credit to them for this idea, was, could we use baskets. They said, you know we use baskets for a lot of things, could we use a basket instead of a pod instead of this heavy PVC that looks very sterile.

The baby basket they came up with has been compared the one woven for the baby Moses from rushes and reeds; A lifesaving idea born of necessity that is being adapted for today.  The new baby basket draws upon both modern mechanical engineering for it’s heat retaining features, and the modern field of public health. There are few if any degree programs that those 2 fields of study, only people, like Ashley Taylor, who have studied both and put them together to solve modern problems.

“I’m just teaching this year for the first time and I think what I’m really trying to share with my students is that whatever you’re passionate about, there’s a place for that in engineering. So I think that as we’re trying to broaden the definition of engineering we’re trying to move into encouraging students and engineering students specifically to work on projects that they’re really excited about. You know, those things that make your eyes sparkle and make you want to get up in the morning.”

Initial funding to design and make the baby baskets came from Virginia Tech’s mechanical engineering department and the pediatric medical device institute in Roanoke. Malawian entrepreneurs are now manufacturing the low cost baby baskets.   Taylor expects them to be available there this fall. The team plans to seek more financial support to keep the project going.