Nearly 70 children from schools throughout Southeast Washington put on a winning performance recently as part of the Youth Forum on Infant Health at Greater Southeast Community Hospital.
Using songs, skits and films, performers ranging in age from two to 13 discussed birth defects, proper nutrition, the problems of early childbearing, the risks of low birthweight babies and sudden infant death syndrome for an audience of parents and hospital staff. The children recited a number of facts, including the information that twice as many black babies as babies of other races die in the first year of life, and that four times more black mothers than mothers of other races die in childbirth.
Children from Kimball Elementary School presented a mock television game show which included the jingle: "Take the baby for its protection, to the center for its injection."
The detectives reported that the deaths were the result of a host of problems. These included teen-age mothers in poor health who do not visit their doctors regularly, and women who do not know about rubella shots or having their blood pressure checked.
The tykes from Matthews Memorial Baptist Nursery School explained, one by one that pregnant mothers should not smoke, drink or eat salty, sugary or fatty foods, so they will have "beautiful babies just like me!" Children from Benning, Birney and Stanton elementary schools also participated.
The program, sponsored by the District's Improved Pregnancy Outcome project, was designed to call attention to the District's high infant mortality rate and pass on preventive information.
Educational efforts of this type are particularly timely in light of last week's announcement that the death rate of newborns in this city increased slightly in 1980. Last year, the infant mortality rate was nearly 25 deaths for every 1,000 babies born. This rate far exceeds the national average of 14 deaths per 1,000. Department of Human Services Director James Buford said the one of the causes is that many poor and undereducated women do not seek prenatal care.
Why were little children used to pass on information of such major significance?
"You would be amazed at what little kids learn and remember . . . especially years later," said Naomi Chamberlin, head of Chamberlin and Associates, who organized and wrote scripts for the program. Children, said Chamberlin, "are unbelievable message carriers."
A spokeswoman for the hospital recalled that while the children were rehearsing at the hospital, a little boy from the Matthews nursery school saw a pregnant woman come through the entrance smoking a cigarette. To the surprise of everyone, especially the startled mother-to-be, the little boy dashed across the room and said to the woman, "You're going to kill your baby.Stop that!"
Chamberlin said the most exciting part of the experience was watching the children's enthusiasm grow, especially as they gained the attention and support of their parents. People are more willing to listen to their children than to strangers, the organizers believe.
Chamberlin also hopes that by imparting these messages to children while they are young and still willing to listen to adults, the children might put the knowledge to use later when they become sexually active.
For the past six years, Chamberlin and Kelly have been organizing educational programs for all ages in the areas of health and social services. This particular project began with a youth group at Matthews Memorial Baptist Church and was expanded.
Chamberlin, a former teacher of deaf and emotionally disturbed children, saw another advantage in the fact that the participating children were youngesters who were never chosen to be stars before.
"Their speech was atrocious," Chamberlin said. But when she was through with them, even the youngest could remember and pronounce words like "infant mortality" and "neonatology" (the study of new borns).