No halo? Try a hat

This week we tell again the age-old story of the baby born in a manger. Creches crown our mantelpieces – Joseph standing guard, Mary kneeling beside the baby, maybe some cows and sheep and shepherds plus the requisite three wise men. In most of these sweet scenes, the baby’s head is surrounded by a halo, showing His holiness. Maybe that halo, along with an angel or two, also protected Jesus against the cold. All newborn babies need that protection, and because they don’t have halos, they need something more prosaic – they need hats.

The world loses more than 3.5 million newborns a year, according to UNICEF, and most of those deaths are completely preventable. Simple, cheap, well-known interventions can keep those babies alive – no miracle drugs are needed, no brave-new-world breakthroughs. If a birth attendant is there for the delivery, if the mother starts breastfeeding right away, if the baby gets an inexpensive tetanus shot and if someone tells the mother how to keep the umbilical cord clean and how to keep the baby warm, the newborn’s chances of survival skyrocket.

What most moms around the world don’t know is that an infant needs a hat in order to stay warm. If you go to the maternity ward in a hospital in the United States, you will see all the adorable little bundles wearing little tiny caps. Those caps are lifesavers, and now people all over this country are knitting them to help keep babies alive around the world.

Four boys in Trumbull, Conn., heard about the Caps for Good effort run by Save the Children (where Cokie is a trustee) and decided to take knitting lessons. They managed to produce, or collect from family, friends and teachers, more than 300 caps that went to newborn-survival programs in Mali.

In Texas, a 16-year-old organized other girls and senior citizens to knit 5,000 caps to distribute in local hospitals and internationally through Save the Children. In upstate New York, young women at a school for teenage moms took up knitting needles after they were introduced to the hardships that mothers face in the developing world. When they realized that some people have it harder than they do, it gave the expectant mothers new perspectives on their own lives as they turned out two caps each – one for their own babies, one for a baby overseas.

And in the Bronx, N.Y., members of Fire Battalion 15 have been carefully counting their knits and purls as they try to maneuver their burly hands around the cap patterns. Chief Thomas Grabner told his knitting teacher that it was a revelation and a relief to the men that “you don’t have to risk your life to save a life.”

A couple of years ago, with hardly any publicity, a similar brief campaign surprised Save the Children by yielding more than 100,000 little caps – some of them boasting team names and colors, some designed to look like vegetables or fruit, some sporting ribbons and rickrack. Everyone from prisoners to knitting clubs to Girl Scout troops contributed, almost overwhelming the organization’s Connecticut offices.

Advocates for children hope these knitters will also become lobbyists. Caps can do a lot but letters urging their representatives and the president to increase support for newborn mortality programs can do even more. It’s going to be tough to convince Congress to up the funding for babies at a time of high deficits, but we’re talking about millions of dollars in a trillion-dollar budget – when it comes to saving newborns, a little goes a long way.

At the turn of the millennium, the countries of the world united to set some basic goals for the years ahead. One of them: reduce the number of deaths of children under 5 by two-thirds by 2015 from what they were in 1990. Though some progress has been made on improving child survival, the goal will not be met if current trend lines hold.

But those trend lines can change – with some cash and some caps. That’s something the knitters have learned, even the youngest ones. Brownie troop leader Diane Shaw told the Westport (Conn.) News that her kids now know “something they can do can make an impact on someone in another part of the world.”

We all can make that impact if we make sure the money is there. Then modern-day mothers kneeling in worry, and fathers keeping guard, could see their babies live – even without the help of halos or angels.

Steve Roberts’ new book, “From Every End of This Earth” (HarperCollins), was published in paperback this fall. Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at

Copyright 2010, Steven and Cokie Roberts

Distributed by United Feature Syndicate, Inc.

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