When the Mother and Child Institute in Bogota, Colombia, found itself short on doctors, nurses, and incubators, Dr. Edgar Rey decided to try something new -- or rather, something old.
What he came up with is known as "kangaroo care." In this system, the mother of a premature infant puts the baby on her exposed chest.
The baby is dressed only in a diaper and sometimes a cap, is kept in an upright or semi-upright position, and has all but its head covered by its mother's shirt.
The baby's temperature is regulated by the sympathetic biological responses that occur when a mother and infant are in close physical contact -- the mother's breasts actually heat up or cool down.
According to the New York Times:
In related news, the FDA has issued a warning against breast milk sharing -- breast milk obtained, often over the Internet, from mothers who have a surplus.
"Kangaroo care has been widely studied. A trial in a Bogota hospital of 746 low birth weight babies randomly assigned to either kangaroo or conventional incubator care found that the kangaroo babies had shorter hospital stays, better growth of head circumference and fewer severe infections ...
A conservative summary of the evidence to date is that kangaroo care is at least as good as conventional treatment -- and perhaps better."
Kangaroo care is a somewhat new name for a very old tradition, one that has been followed instinctively by women across the globe since the beginning of time. Namely, it refers to holding a newborn, including those born prematurely, close to its mother's bare chest, like a kangaroo holds its joey in its pouch.
Although it's been used for centuries, the modern-day method is credited to Dr. Edgar Rey, the chief of the pediatrics department at the Mother and Child Institute in Bogota, Colombia, who began using kangaroo care in the 1970s because of a shortage of incubators.
Since then, such skin-to-skin contact has proven to be incredibly beneficial for newborns, so much so that in hospitals where incubators are in short supply using kangaroo care has increased low birth weight babies' survival rates from 10 percent to 50 percent, and larger babies' survival rates from 70 percent to 90 percent.
The Benefits of Skin-to-Skin Contact for Newborns
Quite simply, skin-to-skin contact is probably one of the most important steps you can take to give your baby a healthy start right after birth. Just take a few minutes to watch the video below and you'll see that skin-to-skin contact can actually make the difference between life and death.
When a mother holds her newborn against her bare skin:
- The baby's temperature is regulated by the close contact -- in fact, a woman's breasts will change in temperature depending on whether the baby needs more or less warmth.
- The mother's breathing and heartbeat helps the baby's heart and respiratory rates to stabilize.
- The mother produces more milk and the baby breastfeeds earlier, gaining more weight.
- Emotional bonding is encouraged.
Babies who receive kangaroo care also show:
- Gains in sleep time
- Decreased crying
- More successful breastfeeding
- Improved oxygen saturation levels
- More regular breathing patterns
- More rapid weight gain
- Earlier hospital discharge
As the New York Times reported, in one trial of nearly 750 low birth weight babies, those who received kangaroo care had shorter hospital stays, better growth of head circumference and fewer severe infections than babies placed in incubators.
A separate study also revealed that when mothers initiated skin-to-skin contact with their newborns 15 to 20 minutes after birth, the infants slept longer and more peacefully, using positions that indicated less stress.
After the contact ended, the effects of the skin-to-skin contact seemed to continue even four hours later, as the babies displayed less stressful body movements after spending several hours in the nursery.
The researchers suggested that the most dangerous and stressful events that occur during the human life cycle take place during the transition from the womb to the real world, therefore mothers who made a point of giving their infants skin-to-skin contact would help their newborn adjust to their new unfamiliar surroundings.
Kangaroo Care Encourages Breastfeeding
Outside of the temperature and breathing regulation, as well as the emotional benefits, one of the best reasons to use kangaroo care is that it increases the likelihood of successful breastfeeding.
This is important as breastfeeding offers your child lifelong health benefits, not only cutting their risk of SIDS in half, but also providing added protection against:
- Heart disease
- Bowel diseases such as Crohn's disease
- Asthma, allergies, and respiratory infections
- Type 1 and type 2 diabetes
Moms who use kangaroo care have increased milk supply and their babies have an easier time nursing, so it's a simple way to encourage a positive, successful breastfeeding experience.
If Your Hospital Doesn't Suggest Kangaroo Care, Ask for It
Or rather, demand it. Many U.S. hospitals are now using some form of kangaroo care, even in their NICUs, but it is far from a standard of care. As a new parent, be sure you make it clear that you want to spend as much time as possible engaging in skin-to-skin contact with your newborn, including, and especially, if your baby is born premature.
Whether you are giving birth in a hospital or at home, let your obstetrician or midwife, as well as the nursing staff, know that you want the baby placed on your chest immediately after delivery. And for those who are wondering, dads can take part in kangaroo care, too.
The process is actually incredibly simple. Place the baby, wearing only a diaper and if you like a hat, on your bare chest. Then cover the baby with a blanket or gown, and enjoy the bonding time together.
And that's all there is to it. A simple and instinctive practice that will give both you and baby a warm, secure start to your new life together.