Family Matters

Expecting? Text ‘BABY’ for Advice About Healthy Pregnancy

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When Megan Johnson was eight weeks pregnant, a nurse told her about a new, free service that would send her customized text messages about her current stage of pregnancy. All she had to do was text “BABY” (or “BEBE” for Spanish) to 511411 and provide her due date.

Johnson, whose daughter was born in January, received texts such as this:

“Did you drink water today? Get plenty of water each day & more if it’s hot or you’re exercising. Keeping your body hydrated is important!”

“Talk to your Dr. about getting a flu shot. Pregnant moms & babies can get very sick from flu. For info call CDC at 800-232-4636.”

“Need free or low-cost health care for you & your baby? Your state has programs to help. Call 877-543-7669 to find out if you qualify.”

As a single mother who’s out of work — the sort of demographic that can lack the resources to be diligent about prenatal care — Johnson, 22, is text4baby’s target market, along with Hispanics and African Americans. They’re about 2.5 times as likely as whites to postpone seeing an obstetrician until the third trimester or to get no prenatal care at all. But they love to text. (More on Leads to Sex Sooner — and Easier Breakups Later)

The information snippets that pop up on their cell phones encourage them to see a doctor. But if they don’t, being told what they should and should not do via cell phone may be the next best thing.

At times, text4baby has seized the opportunity to deliver urgent alerts. In the fall, for example, a text went out warning women not to use sleep positioners, which had been linked to infant deaths. And in California, a text was sent to subscribers living in a specific zip code that was experiencing a pertussis outbreak. (More on Parents, Stop Using Infant Sleep Positioners; They’re Linked to 12 Deaths)

“This program has taken off in way never could have anticipated,” says Judy Meehan, executive director at National Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies Coalition, which writes the messages. “We’re able to use this as a public utility.”

Since launching in Feb. 2010, the program has reached 142,000 subscribers through 9 million texts; messages continue to be sent until a baby’s first birthday. There are now partnerships with public clinics where low-income women, many of them Medicaid-eligible, receive care. In New York, information about text4baby is included with every birth certificate; in Virginia, every Medicaid mailing contains details of the program.

Johnson & Johnson has pledged millions over multiple years to help grow the program, and wireless providers have committed to letting subscribers receive the texts at no charge. “Because it’s free and it’s the latest, greatest cool thing in public health, the partner pick-up on this is huge,” says Meehan.

In order to figure out whether cell phones really can alter infant mortality — even Cuba is ahead of the U.S. when it comes to this wellness measure — the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is tracking whether text4baby subscribers have better outcomes than nonsubscribers. Focus groups in northern Virginia, for example, are assessing pregnant women who received the texts and others who didn’t to determine whether the text4baby subscribers made any health-related changes. (More on Time.comTo Slash the Abortion Rate, Dole Out Birth-Control Pills a Year at a Time)

Johnson, who is also the mother of a toddler, credits the service with helping her take better care of herself and her baby.  She’s recommended the service to friends as a “nifty way” to get information without aimlessly searching on Google. “You can never have too much information,” says Johnson. “I like to know all there is to know.”