A local nonprofit organization is taking its efforts to prevent stillbirths to a national and international audience. 

On Oct. 4, Count the Kicks, a public health campaign sponsored by Des Moines nonprofit Healthy Birth Day, launched a mobile app that will increase awareness about ways to avoid stillbirths and infant deaths. 

Healthy Birth Day came to be in 2003 after five local women – Kerri Biondi-Morlan, Jan Caruthers, Kate Safris, Tiffan Yamen and Janet Petersen – each lost baby daughters to stillbirth or infant death. 

“We met at first as a way to get through the grief,” said Petersen, who was a member of the Iowa House of Representatives at the time and now serves in the Iowa Senate. “Eventually, it turned into advocacy.”

The group’s first victory came in 2004, Petersen said, when Iowa’s Stillbirth Registry law was enacted. In addition to the group creating a parent-to-parent network to reach out to families immediately following the loss of their babies, Healthy Birth Day – which is almost completely operated by volunteers – also launched Count the Kicks, a campaign that encourages women to monitor their babies’ movements in the third trimester of pregnancy.

Count the Kicks was launched after its founders researched a similar campaign in Norway. Norwegian mothers, by actively tracking and recording their babies’ movements late in pregnancy, reduced the country’s stillbirth rates.

“We wanted to see if we could model that in Iowa and achieve the same success rate,” Petersen said.

In 2006, 234 fetal deaths were recorded by the Iowa Department of Public Health. By 2012, that number had dropped to 174.

Count the Kicks operates entirely on donations. In the past it has partnered with local businesses and organizations including marketing and public relations firm Strategic America Inc., publisher Meredith Corp. and the March of Dimes to print and distribute materials to Iowa clinics, hospitals, and health care providers across the state to spread the word to expectant mothers. 

Currently, Petersen said, about 80 percent of Iowa’s obstetrics and gynecology offices have the free materials, as well as 75 percent of state birthing hospitals.

“What we hear from a lot of moms is we’re not always empowered to speak up for ourselves,” said Healthy Birth Day founder Kate Safris. “We’re giving them a tool that provides data, and ultimately, we want this to be something everyone does.”

Since its inception, Count the Kicks has drawn interest from nearly 20 other states and six countries. The mobile app was created to extend the reach of the program. Grants this year from Prairie Meadows Racetrack and Casino, Principal Financial Group Foundation and Polk County financed the app’s development. Last year, the organization was able to hire Lezlie Mestdagh as its full-time outreach coordinator.

“We would absolutely not be here without the support of the Des Moines business community,” Safris said.

The group also is preparing to launch a national volunteer program.

“We want to reach moms wherever they’re at,” Mestdagh said. “This will bring the program to them and take away cost barriers to expand the program beyond Iowa.”

Mestdagh said one of the most inspiring things she has observed during her time at Healthy Birth Day is seeing women and mothers turn their grief into something powerful.

“It’s not just about providing materials,” Mestdagh said. “At the end of the day, we’re going to save a baby’s life.”