skip navigation nih record
Vol. LXII, No. 4
February 19, 2010

previous story

next story

Knitter Power
Rosenberg Launches Cap Campaign to Save Newborns

On the front page...

A baby’s first cry is a sound like none other. We know that infants must learn to breathe on their own, and fast. And they must also survive being pushed from the perfection of their mothers’ warmth.

To be expelled, soaking wet, not wearing a stitch, suddenly exposed to room temperature, or worse—what a shock.

Here’s the problem: The newborn brain is too immature to maintain body temperature. Even a healthy, full-term infant has few defenses against cold stress.

That’s why delivery room nurses slip stockinette caps onto newborn heads. The scalp has a relatively large surface area from which heat can be lost and if an infant’s temperature dips too low for too long, cold injury can trigger a chain reaction that ends in death.

“Understand that people live in a world where a baby can die of cold,” says NIAID’s Alice Rosenberg. “In Rwanda, a man walked for 3 days with his pregnant wife in a wheelbarrow to bring her to a clinic only to have the baby die of hypothermia.”


NHGRI’s Green says, “Genomics has not gotten dull since the end of the Human Genome Project. It has been a spectacular 7 years since 2003. The genomic revolution continues.”

NIAID’s Alice Rosenberg coordinates a volunteer project to save infants from hypothermia.

Now, at the request of Dr. Paul Farmer and his nonprofit organization Partners in Health, Rosenberg has volunteered to coordinate a knit-a-cap campaign to save infant lives.

As the registered nurse specialist who developed and now helps manage NIH’s collaboration with the D.C. department of health to fight the District’s HIV/AIDS epidemic [the D.C. Partnership for HIV/AIDS Progress], Rosenberg is a “nurse navigator,” a title unique to this position.

Think about what it takes to deal with a single bureaucracy. Rosenberg tacks between a federal agency, a city health department, several hospitals and community clinics. Compared to this complexity, knitting sounds soothing.

Baby Cap Pattern

Supplies: Size #6 needles

Use washable (acrylic) baby yarn or sport weight yarn.

Cast on the number of stitches for the size hat desired (see size chart below).

Rib Stitch (Knit 1, Purl 1) for one inch for all sizes.

Stockinette Stitch (Knit 1 row, Purl 1 row) for the number of inches indicated (see size chart below).

Draw yarn through all stitches on needle. Pull tightly on top. Knot securely.

Weave together seam using yarn.

Optional: Add pom-pom or bow on top.

Size chart:
Note number of stitches to cast on for stockinette length.

Full-term: 66 stitches for 5 to 5.5 inches

X-Large Preemie: 58 stitches for 4 to 4.5 inches

Medium Preemie: 44 stitches for 3 to 3.5 inches

Small Preemie: 40 stitches for 2.5 to 3 inches

X-Small Preemie: 36 stitches for 2.5 inches

It all started when her daughter, Naomi Rosenberg, sent her an email: “She said, ‘Mom, babies are dying of hypothermia in Rwanda. Ask some of your friends who knit if they can help.’”

So far, Rosenberg has made, collected and shipped 280 caps since last October, and more are needed.

“They tell us to keep them coming,” she says.

One hundred babies per month are born at Rwinkwavu Hospital in Rwanda, the first Partners in Health-built hospital in Africa. It’s one of the sites where Naomi once worked as an assistant to Farmer, who co-founded PIH in 1987. She is now a medical student at the University of Pennsylvania.

Rwanda, in east-central Africa, is near the equator. Yet because it’s in a mountainous region, Rwanda gets cold. Preemies are especially vulnerable, but even full-term babies need caps.

Still recovering from the 1994 genocide in which an estimated 800,000 people were killed, Rwanda is making progress: Its infant mortality rate is down to 112 per 1,000 live births. The U.S. rate is around 6 per 1,000 live births.  

“They have only one incubator [in Rwinkwavu Hospital],” says Rosenberg. “They once had to put four babies in it together, head to toe…”

PIH works to bring modern medical care to poor communities in nine countries around the world. The President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief was based on PIH’s groundbreaking model in Haiti. Now Rosenberg’s full-time job fighting HIV/AIDS in Washington, D.C., dovetails with her volunteer effort for PIH.

“I’m basically a public health nurse,” she said. “When the World Trade Center went down, I got in my car and went to help.”

The cap project “takes almost no investment,” as Rosenberg puts it. “Anybody who knits has a plastic bag of scraps they’re saving for a project someday. I can make two of these hats while I’m watching the football game.”

Note to knitters: Use acrylic yarn, because it’s washable. Even if you don’t knit, you probably know somebody who does.

“Nurses at Rockledge and on the eighth floor of the CRC are contributing,” Rosenberg says. “And I’ve got my book club making caps.”

So this is a true-love story, even though the characters may never meet. It’s about babies born in poor, rugged surroundings in a recovering nation. It’s about a nurse with a plan to keep them from dying of cold, one by one, stitch by stitch. It’s about knitter power.

“The world is uneven,” Rosenberg says, “and this is one of the things I can do to help.”

Baby cap drop-off location is in Dr. Steven Rosenberg’s office, Bldg. 10-CRC/3-3940, or email Alice Rosenberg directly at NIHRecord Icon

back to top of page