I wish I’d known about this sooner! I just read in the New York Times that last week marked the one-year anniversary of text4baby, “a service that sends free text messages to women who are pregnant or whose babies are less than a year old, providing them with information, and reminders, to improve their health and the health of their babies.”

Cool! I, for one, couldn’t get enough of that stuff over the past two years. During my own pregnancy and my daughter’s first year, I read everything I could get my hands on about nutrition and safety during pregnancy and infant health.

For that very reason, the service may seem redundant. There’s a seeming overabundance of health advice available to pregnant women and new parents in books, brochures, and online. But that assumes that women have the time and resources to seek out health information.

In the scheme of things, mine was a charmed pregnancy. I was lucky to have the time and money to do lots of reading and research. As the NYT reports, lots of American women have no Internet access; millions also lack adequate health insurance and aren’t necessarily well informed about what kind of prenatal or child health care and nutrition programs might be available to them.

What most women DO have these days, however, is a cell phone. Delivering health information via text seems to have hit a sweet spot in target populations. According to the NYT, more than 90 percent of Americans have cell phones.

  • Flying in the face of a litany of well-intentioned efforts to inform pregnant women about health issues, this program has been wildly successful at reaching women who wouldn’t normally get important advice:

    The service, made available through a broad partnership of community health organizations, wireless carriers, businesses, health care providers and government health agencies, is catching on like wildfire: to date, about 135,000 women have signed up—and organizers have set a new goal of reaching one million users by the end of 2012 (there are four million births each year in the U.S.)

    What’s the formula for success?

    Perhaps most importantly, the barriers to participation are LOW. Signing up is painless and information comes in small bites that are quick and easy to consume:

    [A]ll you need to do is send a text message to the number 511411 with the word BABY or BEBE (for Spanish messages). You will be prompted for your due date or your child’s birth date, and your zip code, and immediately, you will begin receiving three messages a week offering actionable, evidence-based information relevant to your stage in pregnancy or your child’s development.

    Tone matters too—even in health messages that get boiled down to 160 character texts:

    To make sure women stay engaged with the service, HMHB tested the messages in community clinics and Healthy Start programs. “We worked on tone—so the messages sound like they’re coming from a friend. Not ‘you should do this’ but ‘have you thought about this?’ ” said Meehan. And based on feedback, they balanced informative messages with messages about the wonders and joy of motherhood.

    It’s still the case that the “United States ranks 30th in the world in infant mortality rates—between Poland and Slovakia. About 28,000 children born in the U.S. each year die before their first birthday—and many more face disabilities and serious life-long health problems, often because they are born prematurely or at low birth weights.” Sobering, indeed.

    It’s reassuring to think that creative uses of everyday technology could help lots of women and babies. One wonders what other applications this kind of personal, targeted, broadcast communication might be.

    Photo courtesy Grietgriet at MorgueFile.