Laos and the Maternity Waiting Homes Project

ASIA, GUEST BLOGGERS, Philanthropy — By on February 28, 2010 at 18:05

Story by guest blogger Debra Woods. Photos Copyright © Debra Woods.

Hmong mother with baby

Hmong mother with baby


I had the good fortune during 2007 & ‘08 to work on a project in three southern Lao provinces, the poorest in the country—Attapeu, Saravan and Sekong. Our project’s main aim was to reduce the maternal and infant mortality rates in these areas. Laos has the highest maternal mortality ratio in East and Southeast Asia.

We built 17 Maternity Waiting Homes (MWH) that provide medical care to pregnant women and new mothers. Many of the homes are in remote areas and the women are from varied ethnic minorities. They are used to giving birth at home in their villages and prefer this to coming to the hospital.

Although there may be a woman in the village who can attend the delivery and has some experience, they do not have enough proper training nor do they have the most basic of equipment such as sterile gloves. If a complication should arise during the labor or delivery, such as bleeding too much, the woman must be taken to the nearest hospital. This could take too much time or there may not be available transportation or the roads could be washed out if it’s the rainy season. More often women deliver with a family member or alone.

Pregnant women at MWH

Pregnant women at MWH

Our project’s aim was to encourage women to come to birth in the hospital where they could receive proper care and have a safe, clean delivery. Women would arrive from their villages to stay at the MWH prior to giving birth. There they receive health education on a variety of topics, focusing especially on family planning, birth spacing, nutrition, breastfeeding and newborn care.

Often women are malnourished and anemic and their babies born prematurely or at a low birth weight. They receive antenatal care and for some it is the first time they have seen a nurse during their pregnancy. They are examined and this helps to identify problems that can cause complications during the labor.

The women also receive rice daily to add to their own food. Gardens have been created next to each home to provide additional nutrition to the women and their family members who stay with them. Women feel comfortable at the MWH as they say it is so like their own home. They prefer to stay at the home as opposed to the adjacent hospital and usually an hour or so after delivery, move back over to the MWH to recover.

Ms. Neow doing Yu Fai

Ms. Neow doing Yu Fai

There the women do the traditional ‘yu fai’ for a few days. Yu fai is a practice involving the women lying on a bamboo bed that has burning charcoal underneath. They rest here for a number of days as a type of cleansing. More charcoal is added as needed to keep the room and bed very hot.

This practice is adhered to by all women. Our project explained to women the dangers inherent in this practice, that of breathing in carbon monoxide from the burning charcoal. We could not change the practice, but women agreed to have more ventilation in the room and not expose their newborns too much to the fumes.

Once the nurses determine that both mother and baby are fine and breastfeeding is well established, the family returns home to their village.

Khamsone teaching a class

Khamsone teaching a class

Breastfeeding is a topic that requires much discussion and hands-on support. Women need encouragement to feed their baby as needed and to understand the value of the ‘yellow’ milk (colostrum). For some ethnic minorities, this milk is discarded—preventing the baby from receiving the benefits, such as protection from illness. Through the work of many different health organizations, awareness is growing, particularly among the current generation of mothers, of the value of colostrum and so the old practice is fading out.

My involvement included working with the staff, particularly the nurses, to ensure proper care for the women. As a certified childbirth educator, birth and postpartum support person (doula) and breastfeeding consultant, I was able to provide education and support to them.

This project ended in September 2008, although the homes are still in use today.

Weaver making rebozo

Weaver making rebozo


As part of the ongoing support to the homes, women weavers are making Lao rebozos that are being sold in Canada. These long pieces of colorful cotton fabric are used during labor and birth to help laboring women and they are also used as baby carriers. A portion of the profits goes back into the MWH project to create sustainability.

Anyone wishing more information about this project or how to obtain a Lao rebozo, please contact Debra at debra.laos @ gmail.com. (Be sure to take the spaces out of her email address before you hit Send.)

In addition, the purchase of products on Debra’s Website, www.asiantribalwares.com, will help towards the sustainability of the Maternity Waiting Homes.

Debra Woods

Debra Woods

DEBRA WOODS has been living the life of a nomad for many moons, beginning at eighteen when she traveled to Europe and then found herself hitchhiking across the Sahara Desert, onto Turkey via Greece and then overland to India. After only a few days in India she met the man who was to become her guru, leading her on the eternal quest for truth and to know one’s true nature. Her love of travel has taken her to numerous countries around the globe. She currently resides in Vancouver on the West Coast of Canada, enjoying the rain forest and mild winter. Her latest idea is to travel to Fez, Morocco for the 16th Annual World Sacred Music Festival in June.

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