The World Health Organization Encourages Skin-to-Skin Contact After Birth, Even During the Pandemic

Parents around the world are being deprived of kangaroo care, which the WHO says is critical to prevent infant death and lifelong health complications.

An image of a newborn with their mother.
Photo: Getty Images.

Skin-to-skin contact—aka kangaroo care—is known to have a slew of benefits for newborns, but the COVID-19 pandemic is preventing babies across the world from getting this special bonding time with their parent, according to a new report from the World Health Organization (WHO).

Newborns in many nations are being separated from their parent when a COVID-19 infection is "confirmed or suspected," new research shows. This puts the babies at higher risk of death and lifelong health complications, WHO points out. It's most troubling for low-income nations where preterm births and infant deaths occur at higher numbers. Research shows 12 percent of babies are born preterm in lower-income countries compared to 9 percent in higher-income ones.

To break down the numbers: A review of 20 clinical guidelines from 17 countries found a third of them recommended separating newborns if the parent had COVID-19. And two thirds of health care providers in 62 countries do not let parents perform skin-to-skin if they have confirmed or suspected coronavirus and nearly a quarter don't permit breastfeeding even if the caregiver isn't infected, according to a global survey published in British Medical Journal (BMJ) Global Health. It's important to note these responses came from mainly low and middle-income countries and 85 percent of health care workers feared for their own health while 89 percent reported elevated stress.

"Disruptions to essential health services during COVID-19 have severely affected the quality of care provided to some of the most vulnerable babies, and this includes their right to the lifesaving contact they need with their parents," Anshu Banerjee, Ph.D., director for maternal, newborn, child and adolescent health and ageing at WHO said in a statement. "Decades of progress in reducing child deaths will be jeopardized unless we act now to protect and improve quality care services for mothers and newborns, and expand coverage of lifesaving interventions like kangaroo mother care."

Even if a parent has COVID-19 or an infection is suspected, WHO says infants should be kept with parents for skin-to-skin. Breastfeeding should also be allowed. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has recommended the same guidelines on skin-to-skin, adding, "Mothers with COVID-19 should use a mask while holding their baby." Also, the AAP points out the chances of a newborn having a positive PCR test for COVID-19 is similar for those separated from parents and those who room-in but use prevention measures.

Experts have long touted the benefits of kangaroo care. WHO points out it's critical for premature babies and those born at low birthweight—it's been shown to decrease infant death by up to 40 percent, hypothermia by more than 70 percent, and severe infections by 65 percent. It's "one of our most cost-effective ways to protect small and sick newborns. According to our analysis, these risks by far outweigh the small chance of a newborn baby getting severe disease from COVID-19," Queen Dube, Director of Health at the Ministry of Health in Malawi, one of the report authors said in a statement. Newborns with COVID-19 typically show mild disease or no symptoms.

Dude added: "Kangaroo mother care is among the best interventions to improve a premature or low birthweight baby's chances of survival, especially in low-income countries."

Additionally, skin-to-skin is also beneficial for full-term infants helping to decrease crying, having more successful breastfeeding episodes, gaining sleep time, and even positively impacting brain development, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Parents also benefit since it improves bonding time and confidence in caregiving.

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