When it comes to infancy, newborn kangaroos have it pretty great. They’re born, quickly squirm their way to a large, comfy, fur-lined pouch, and they spend the entirety of their newborn and infant life skin-to-skin and with 24/7 access to mother’s milk. Life is grand.
Potentially, human infants have all the same opportunities when they’re born. The ability to be skin-to-skin (slings, wraps and multiple baby-wearing gear makes it possible), held, warm, protected and within easy reach of the breast is a reality for many babies whose mothers understand the importance of these millennia-old bonding rituals.
What is Kangaroo Care?
This continuous, close and constant contact with mothers is beneficial for all infants – and it has been given an official name: kangaroo care. Research shows that kangaroo care is critically important for infants who are more vulnerable as the result of premature birth, low-birth weight, birth defects or congenital issues that keep them in the hospital after labor and delivery.
Specifically, kangaroo care means that the baby is clad in only a diaper and placed skin-to-skin on the parent’s bare chest. A soft blanket can be added across the baby’s back to provide extra warmth if needed. The parent’s shirt or blouse is pocketed up around the baby’s body so the infant can cocoon itself in its parent’s warmth, smell and pheromones. Finally, the baby should be fed breastmilk, rather than formula, whenever possible. While the baby’s parents are the best option, kangaroo care can be provided by other family members or even NICU volunteers.
Benefits of Kangaroo Mother Care
The benefits of kangaroo mother care (KMC) were published in a recent issue of Pediatrics. The published work is titled, “Kangaroo Mother Care 20 Years Later: Connecting Infants and Families.” The findings are so inspiring because while we’ll always applaud the advancements of modern medicine, we also regale the moments when the sweetest, simplest and most instinctive solutions have measurable success. Here is a little background to frame the study’s findings.
Back in 1970, Dr Nathalie Charpak and her colleagues decided to teach a new (or, as some would argue, ancient) method for taking care of babies with low birth weights. In addition to traditional incubator care, Dr. Charpak had the mothers keep the babies attached to their bodies using kangaroo care as much as possible. The idea was for babies to be exclusively breastfed, using formula supplements only when the babies were not reaching reasonable daily weight gain goals. This was the start of a small revolution, which took certain, forward-thinking Neo-natal ICUs by storm.
As a result, more than 20 years later, a review of more than 21 different studies that include more than 3000 babies, have shown what Dr. Charpak and her team suspected all along. Babies who have skin-to-skin contact with their mothers and/or parents and who have the opportunity to be sustained primarily with breastmilk fare better than those who don’t. To find out if they were correct, Charpak’s team systematically contacted the babies-now-young-adults involved in the study and recorded their findings.
The young adults who were treated using kangaroo care as infants, as opposed to more traditional incubator care:
- Were more apt to have survived into their 20s, and researchers noted that KMC offered significantly higher protection against early death rates.
- Had lower incidences of aggressive or impulsive behavior.
- Were less likely to be hyperactive.
- Had larger brains.
- Considered themselves to be in more cohesive family units.
Researchers found other interesting correlations that weren’t necessarily predicted. The young adults who received KMC:
- Experienced fewer academic absences.
- Had working wages that were an average of 53% higher than the control group.
- Show a small, but notable, increase in IQ points than their counterparts.
Are you in the midst of a high-risk pregnancy in which low-birth weight is a potential outcome? Have you recently given birth to a low-weight infant? If so, we recommend putting Kangaroo Care to the test. Best-case scenario is that your baby’s health and well-being will be improved as a result, and there isn’t a worst-case scenario we can think. Spending time, skin-to-skin, snuggling and breastfeeding (or feeding breastmilk from a bottle) is one of the most wonderful experiences you’ll ever have.