How Texting Can Help Babies

By: Kenny Goldberg

(SparkCBC: Flickr)

Actually, it's the mother who is supposed to be getting the text messages. (SparkCBC: Flickr)

Cells phones are practically ubiquitous and enable people to do everything from pay bills to play games, not to mention plain old phone calls. But a service developed last year has found a new way to use cell phones. It’s called text4baby and the goal is to help mothers-to-be have a healthy pregnancy.

One of those moms is San Diego resident Jeanne Watson. When she was six months pregnant, a nurse at the clinic told her about the text4baby program. Women who sign up for the service get three health-related text messages each week directly to their mobile phone. The service itself is free and the text messages are also free to receive. It didn’t take long before Watson was sold on it.

“It’s really to the point,” she said. “It just tells you what you should ask the doctor, so you can get an actual answer from a doctor, and not something on the Internet that could be true or not true. You can’t just Google everything. You’ll get like ten different answers.”

Watson’s baby, Lilah, was born a month ago, but text4baby continues to send Watson messages, reminding her about vaccinations and well-baby check ups.

The texts are more than reminders, they’re a permanent list. “I always have my phone with me,” Watson said. “I’m always going through my text messages. So even if I forget to read it or something, I can go back and it’s there. And it’s always with me on my phone.”

When a pregnant woman signs up for the program, either online or on her cell phone, she enters her due date. When she’s enrolled, each text message she receives contains health tips and resources, all timed to coincide with either a specific stage of pregnancy, or a specific stage in a baby’s first year of life. The messages span categories ranging from prenatal care to injury prevention, 250 messages in all. The texts were developed in collaboration with the Centers for Disease Control.

Barbara Mandel directs the San Diego County Medical Society Foundation, which in turn leads the San Diego County text4baby coalition. Altogether, 40 local maternal and child health non-profits are involved.

“What we’ve learned is that are many folks who don’t have access to computers, or don’t use computers often, but [do] have a high use of text messaging,” Mandel says.

The target audience is young, low-income expectant mothers. The messages are available in English or Spanish. While text4baby is available both across California and nationwide, San Diego’s program is one of only a handful that offers local referrals to doctors, clinics, and breastfeeding support. Some 2,400 San Diegans have signed up for it.

Mandel says the concept of using text messaging to encourage healthy behavior is becoming more popular. “They’ve been using it for diabetes and for some cardiac care as well,” she says. “This is the first time that text messaging is being used for getting messages out to expectant and new moms. And we are trying to prove the efficacy of that technique.”

UC San Diego Health System Professor Yvette LaCoursiere is one of the researchers studying the technique’s efficacy, the first time it’s been formally reviewed. The research team found:

  • 75 percent of women reported that text4baby messages informed them of medical warning
 signs they did not know.
  • 71 percent reported talking to their doctor about a topic that they read on a 
text4baby message.
  • 63 percent reported that text4baby helped them remember an 
appointment or immunization that they or their child needed.

Dr. LaCoursiere says she was initially worried that text4baby would prompt too many unnecessary calls to physicians. “What we found, though, is it actually opens a dialogue,” she said. “Three-quarters of women who used the service said that they’ve learned a piece of information. They brought that information to their doctor and started a discussion with them.”

The next step is to find out whether women who use text4baby have better health outcomes. They hope to have some answers on that front next year.

Editor’s note: this story first ran on The California Report on December 7. 

Listen to Kenny Goldberg’s full report here:

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