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

By K. Aleisha Fetters and Tracy B. McGinnis
Tyler Olson/Shutterstock

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.

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 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.

Now doctors across the United States, South America, South Africa, and other countries recommend this skin-to-skin contact – called kangaroo care or kangaroo mother care — to new moms of both premature and full-term infants. The bonding should last from 60 minutes to 24 hours a day, and it can be performed by fathers as well.

Read on for more benefits of kangaroo care for both mothers and babies.

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Benefits of Kangaroo Care

"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."

Here are some important benefits of kangaroo care.

It Helps Baby Adapt

"Thermal regulation is a very common problem with infants, especially preterm babies," says Malika D. Shah, M.D., assistant professor of pediatrics and neonatology at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. After all, when your baby was in the womb, she didn't need to regulate her own temperature. Since your skin is the same temperature as the womb, Baby will find it easier to adapt to her post-birth environment.

It Boosts Baby's Mental Development

Preemies who received kangaroo care had better brain functioning at 15 years old – comparable to that of adolescents born at term – than those who had been placed in incubators, says a Canadian study. By stabilizing heart rate, oxygenation, and improving sleep, the brain is better able to develop, Ludington says.

It Promotes Healthy Weight

One Cochrane Library review concluded that skin-to-skin contact dramatically increases newborn weight gain. "When babies are warm, they don't need to use their energy to regulate their body temperature," Ludington says. "They can use that energy to grow instead." Plus, kangarooed babies enjoy increased breastfeeding rates, which can't hurt healthy weight gain.

It Makes Breastfeeding Easier

"Newborns instinctively have a heightened sense of smell, so placing your baby skin-to-skin helps her seek out the nipple and begin breastfeeding," says Katie Dunning, R.N., clinical coordinator of labor and delivery at Mount Sinai Hospital. In fact, moms who practiced kangaroo care were more likely to breastfeed exclusively and, on average, these moms breastfed three months longer than those who didn't practice skin-to-skin care, says one study published in Neonatal Network.

It Encourages Healthy Heart Rate 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.

It Improves 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.

It Increases Milk Supply

When mom and baby are together, hormones that regulate lactation balance out, helping you produce more milk, Dr. Shah says.

It Reduces Baby's Stress and Pain

Just 10 minutes of skin-to-skin contact reduces babies' levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and increases levels of the "cuddle hormone" oxytocin, which stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system to make babies feel calm and safe, says Ludington. Her research, published in AACN Clinical Issues, shows that when preterm infants are held chest-to-chest, they react less to heel sticks, a minimally invasive way to draw blood, and a common source of pain among preemies.

It Helps Baby Sleep

Less stress = better sleep. Preemies who were cradled skin-to-skin slept more deeply and woke up less often than those who slept in incubators, reported the journal Pediatrics.

It Promotes Bonding with Dad

"From their time in the womb, babies recognize their fathers' voice," says kangaroo care researcher Gene Cranston Anderson, Ph.D., R.N., professor emeritus of nursing at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. "Babies find skin-to-skin contact with dad calming, and it helps them bond."

It Prevents Postpartum Depression

Various studies show that kangaroo care reduces postpartum depression. According to MCN: The American Journal of Maternal/Child Nursing, activity in the mother's adrenal axis is negatively influenced by childbirth, and skin-to-skin contact may reactivate the pathways to minimize the risk of depression. Plus, oxytocin released from skin-to-skin care decreases maternal anxiety and promotes attachment, further reducing the risk, says Dunning.

Kangaroo Care Basics

When it comes to kangaroo care, more is better, but according to Ludington, the first two hours after birth are the most important, in terms of easing Baby into the world.

After that, continued skin-to-skin contact can still be beneficial, especially for preemies that have low birth weights and are unable to regulate their own temperature. Consider it an alternative to an incubator, says Dr. Shah, who recommends preemies get frequent kangaroo care for the first 20-plus weeks of life. "Do it as long as both baby and parents enjoy it," she says. When your baby starts fussing and trying to get off of your chest, it's a good sign it's time to let her do her own thing.

Here’s how to get started with kangaroo mother care:

  • 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.

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.

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