Kangaroo care (KC) is the practice of skin-to-skin contact with a premature baby and parent. In low and middle-income countries, where there are fewer medical resources, Kangaroo care has been shown to reduce mortality among premature babies and shorten the length of hospital stay.
Kangaroo care is also very beneficial in high-income countries even in the midst of extremely high-tech care.
Holding a premature baby skin-to-skin:
- Improves breast milk production and breastfeeding (when mothers do the KC). Remember, breast milk is the best medicine for preemies.
- Reorganizes the nervous system. A premature baby is meant to be in the warm, dark, dampened environment of a uterus filled with amniotic fluid. The stress of our noisy, harsh, cold environment can negatively affect a premature nervous system. KC promotes healthier sleep patterns for a premature baby and reduces stress on the nervous system. Premature babies who experience Kangaroo care tend to have better neurological outcomes. My children were born at 26 weeks, which in 2003 meant a 85% chance of survival and, if they survived, a 25% risk of severe or moderate disability and a 25% risk of a minor disability. The more premature the baby, the greater the negative impact on the nervous system.
- Improves parent-child bonding. The universal first experience of a parent is touching and holding their baby. It is a primitive need and evolutionarily was probably essential for survival as a mother’s embrace at birth provides warmth, helps with bonding, and improves breastfeeding. Many parents of premature children don’t even get to touch their babies at birth, never mind hold them. My son Oliver was too sick for his resuscitation team to even stop for me to have a look. The neonatal intensive care unit is a very disorienting and traumatic experience for parents, and so the time when you can mentally step out of that environment and hold your baby helps the healing go both ways. I feel I got as much out of holding my boys as they did being held.
- Provides pain control for your baby. There is such a positive effect on the nervous system that a baby a young as 28 weeks can have a reduced pain response to a procedure with KC.
But what about all those tubes and wires? And some of the preemies are so small!
That’s what I thought. My children were 26 weeks and weighed 1 lb 11 ounces and 1 lb 13 ounces. They had breathing tubes, intravenous lines, oxygen monitors, and EKG electrodes. It seemed that almost every square inch of them (and there weren’t that many square inches) was covered with some kind of medical equipment. And they were so small. And fragile. I was terrified that I would either: A) dislodge some really, really important piece of medical equipment and/or B) break them.
But that’s where the neonatal intensive care nurses come into play. They are so used to handling the tiniest babies they make it look easy, and the thing is, once you do it a few times it’s not so hard. And you manage to get skin to skin, even with all those tubes and wires.
If a preemie is critically ill, and some are, it may take a few days or even longer until they are stable enough to be held. Sometimes even touching them is just too much for their nervous system and they will drop their heart rate or lower their oxygen levels in response. However, the nurses are trained to look for the subtle signs that means a baby is ready to try KC.
Getting to hold your baby the first time is an amazing thing. For me, it happened 8 days after my children were born. They were each able to tolerate about 30 minutes, but within another week they were up to an hour. I held them each for an hour twice a day until they came home. It is the most amazing thing to see your baby’s heart rate lower and oxygen levels rise in response to your touch.
Kangaroo care is a simple, intuitive, and free therapy that has been proven effective by high quality medical research. What a wonderful thing indeed.