Kangaroo Care: The Importance of a Parent's Touch

Skin-to-skin contact—also called kangaroo care—proves to have dramatic positive effects on preemies and full-term babies.

Kangaroo Care: 5 Benefits of Skin-to-Skin Contact

Mothering Like a Marsupial

Krisanne delivered Kaia Michelle at 24 weeks at 1 pound, 12 ounces. Immediately, Krisanne was separated from her daughter, who was taken an hour away to a special neonatal unit.

The next time Krisanne saw her baby, Kaia was hooked up to monitors and breathing tubes. Krisanne was terrified to hold her, but the nurses encouraged it. Krisanne was instructed to remove her shirt and bra, and the nurses then placed Kaia in her arms.

Krisanne watched Kaia squirm but to Krisanne's astonishment, Kaia fell into a deep, peaceful sleep. "She made me feel like a mom for the first time. I knew at that moment she was going to live," she says.

    Lifesaving Efforts

    The skin-to-skin contact Krisanne gave her daughter was first used in 1979 in Bogota, Colombia, in neonatal wards that had a shortage of incubators for babies with severe hospital infections. Neonatologists Edgar Rey and Hector Martinez turned to nature—specifically kangaroos, which hold their young as soon as they are born.

    They sent mothers home with the instruction to hold their infants diapered but bare-chested between their breasts in an upright position as often as possible, feeding them only breast milk.

    What the doctors—who coined the term "Kangaroo Care"—found was that this skin-to-skin contact not only allowed mothers to leave the hospitals (which decreased overcrowding) but it also decreased their babies' dependency on incubators. And the most astounding? The doctors watched as mortality rates plunged from 70 percent to 30 percent.

      Benefits for Baby

      Today, doctors across the United States, South America, South Africa, and other countries recommend Kangaroo Care—sometimes referred to as Kangaroo Mother Care—to new moms of both premature and full-term infants. Doctors recommend that this bonding last from 60 minutes to 24 hours a day and can be performed by fathers as well.

      "The more skin-to-skin [contact] the better. It should ideally start at birth, but is helpful any time," says Dr. Nils Bergman, senior medical superintendent of Mowbray Maternity Hospital in Cape Town, Africa, where doctors deliver 7,000 children a year.

      "Physiology and research provide overwhelming evidence that Kangaroo Mother Care is not only safe but superior to the use of technology such as incubators," Bergman adds. "Depriving babies of skin-to-skin makes alternative stress pathways in the brain, which can lead to ADD, colic, sleep disorders, among other things."

      No published studies have found any harmful effects of Kangaroo Care—only its benefits. Consider these:

        • Healthier heart rates and respiration. Babies who suffered from respiratory distress and stayed in Kangaroo Care positions were relieved within 48 hours without respirators. One study concluded that heart rates for infants given Kangaroo Care were more regular than babies not given it.
        • Increased breastfeedings. A study found that infants held for more than 50 minutes were 8 times more likely to breastfeed spontaneously. Skin-to-skin contact also increases milk let-down.
        • Improved immunity. "Premature [babies] seem to have poor immune systems—[they're] susceptible to allergies, infections, feeding problems. Early skin-to-skin contact dramatically reduces these problems," says Bergman.
        • Increased weight gain. A study concluded that infants given Kangaroo Care gained weight more quickly than babies not given it; weight gain can often lead to shorter hospital stays.
        • Regulated body temperature. "Mothers are able to control the infant's temperature better than an incubator," Bergman says. "Core temperature can rise by two degrees centigrade if baby is cold and fall 1 degree if baby is hot."

          Kangaroo Care: How to Get Started

          How to Get Started

          • Parents should be seated comfortably in a quiet, dimly lit room with some privacy.
          • Position the baby, dressed in diaper (and cap for warmth if needed) on your bare chest for a minimum of 20 minutes.
          • This bonding time can be experienced by both mother and father. If Kangaroo Care is performed around feedings, place the baby with dad after mom has breastfed.

          All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.

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