Kangaroo Care describes a technique in which infants, often premature and underweight, are placed, skin-to-skin, on the chest of the mother or primary caregiver. This position ensures physiological and physical closeness and warmth. The stable body temperature of the parent can effectively regulate the infant’s temperature, and provides easy accessibility to breastfeeding. Even with the advanced technology in NICUs available in the United States, one recent study noted that 82% of neonatal intensive care units in the US include kangaroo care.
Originally devised in in 1978, the concept of Kangaroo Care was the brainchild of Dr. Edgar Rey Sanabria, Professor of Neonatology at Universidad Nacional de Colombia, as a response to increasing mortality rates of premature and low birth weight infants. Lacking the resources for technologically advanced equipment and extra nurses and doctors, Sanabria proposed that allowing mothers to remain skin-to-skin with these fragile infants might increase their body temperatures, while allowing exclusive access to breastfeeding as needed. This would ideally reserve space in the limited number of incubators for those babies in the most critical conditions.
Proper Kangaroo Care involves skin-to-skin contact between parent and baby. The infant may wear a diaper and hat only, and the parent has either a bare torso, or may wear a gown or shirt unbuttoned to maintain skin contact with the baby. A stretchy wrap can be used to engulf the parent and infant, allowing minimal exposure to colder air and ensuring proper support and positioning for baby’s hips. Kangaroo Care’s definition in Wikipedia:
The tight bundling is enough to stimulate the baby: vestibular stimulation from the mother’s breathing and chest movement, auditory stimulation from the mother’s voice and natural sounds of breathing and the heartbeat, touch by the skin of the mother, the wrap, and her natural tendency to place the hands over the baby. All this stimulation is important for the baby’s development. Fathers can also use the skin-to-skin contact method.
Kangaroo care is often used immediately after birth, when the infant is placed on the mother’s chest within the first minute and throughout at least the first feeding.
The benefits of Kangaroo Care are immense. For mothers, it promotes attachment and connection with the new infant, thus improving parental confidence; and increases milk flow for breastfeeding. Babies enjoy more stabilized heart rate, regulated breathing pattern, improved oxygen saturation, longer sleep, more rapid weight gain, greater success with breastfeeding, decreased crying, and earlier hospital discharge. Hospitals benefit as well, with reduced need for expensive equipment, increased parental involvement, and better use of healthcare dollars.
A recent article featured on MSNBC’s Today show highlights the life-saving benefits of Kangaroo Care. In what is surely every parent’s most profound fear, Australian mother Kate Ogg was told that her infant Jamie, born a twin at just 27 weeks, had not survived. The grieving mother was permitted to hold and cradle him, as she and her husband attempted to reconcile themselves with the tragedy. After about five minutes of skin-to-skin contact, though, Jamie began to show startled movements that became increasingly pronounced. Doctors assured the couple that these movements were merely reflexes. They continued to hold and snuggle with their infant for two hours, at which time he opened his eyes! Unsure of what to believe, the Oggs kept interacting with Jamie, who then began clasping their fingers, as infants do, and finally accepted breastmilk on the tip of Kate’s finger. Says Kate, regarding her instinct to put Jamie on her bare chest:
“[The baby] comes out of you, and all of a sudden there isn’t the warmth or smell of the mother or the sound of their heartbeat. And so putting him back on my chest was as close to him being inside me where he was safe.”
Dr. Lisa Eiland of the Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York City confirms the significance of Kate’s instinctive choice to employ Kangaroo care. “What’s important is the warmth that the mother provides and the stimulation that the baby may have received from hearing the mother’s heartbeat,” Eiland said. “So those are all things that may have helped the baby in terms of going down the path to living as opposed to the path of death.”
Kangaroo Care refers to an instinctive position utilized by most creatures when caring for their young. Defying technology and “advanced” intervention, the simple act of a mother holding her infant against her bare skin; sharing her heartbeat, body rhythm, warmth, and safety; has proven to be the most widely successful way for infants, especially those who are preterm or underweight, to thrive. Says David Ogg, father of Jamie (who is now 5 months old) of his “very strong, very smart wife” and her intuitive use of Kangaroo care:
“She instinctively did what she did. If she hadn’t have done that, then Jamie probably wouldn’t be here.”