Kangaroo care of infants involves a parent, usually the mother, holding the baby skin-to-skin on her bare chest. The steady warmth, easy access to breastfeeding, and simple, physical closeness benefit parent and baby.
All babies benefit from closeness to a parent, and premature babies need the most help.
Kangaroo Care Helps Baby Regulate Systems
Among the most important measurable changes for a baby during kangaroo care are regulation of body temperature, oxygen saturation levels, and respiratory and heart rates. As Dr Sears writes, babies spend a period of time after birth “getting organized.” One aspect of a baby’s organizing is the synchronization of heart rate and breathing, also referred to as “coupling,” and it can take as little as ten minutes in kangaroo care.
Because this closeness to parent is helping the baby regulate systems, there is more energy to be spent on successful breastfeeding, restful sleep, and growth.
As kangaroo care has become a common practice in hospitals, it has developed its rules and guidelines: baby wears only a diaper, baby is placed upright on the mother’s bare chest, baby is covered with a receiving blanket and held snugly to the mother. As I read the guidelines in several places, I wondered whether there was a place in this procedure for a mother’s instinct. I hope that these procedures aren’t meant to engineer away the need for a mother’s love and connection. Whether a parent follows these guidelines or not, their baby will thrive on sking-to-skin closeness.
Baby Saved by a Mother’s Love
A story that was in the news last August has astonished many. When an Australian mother was told that one of her two babies, born prematurely at 27 weeks, had not survived, she instinctively took the time to hold him, to tell him his name and what she would have liked to have done with him during his life. She undressed the baby and held him on her chest for two hours. Doctors told her that his periodic gasps were just a reflex, but she fed him breastmilk on her finger and he breathed. Though he weighed only 2lbs and doctors had declared him dead after working to save his life for 20 minutes, he lived. His mother’s warmth, touch, loving voice, and nutrition saved him. The story was published after she appeared on an Australian television show, carrying her five-month old son to interviews to help people understand the importance of kangaroo care.
That this baby was saved by his mother’s love may seem like a sentimental interpretation of the story, but the extensive research on kangaroo care bears this out. The benefits of skin-to-skin contact with babies are physical, but they are also far beyond the physical.
Babies Thrive on Kangaroo Care
Marsupial care, the idea of nine months in and nine months out, is not at all new. In last week’s post on babywearing around the world, I mentioned research by a British prehistorian who found that a mother’s marsupial care of babies—babywearing—was essential to human evolution.
In one tiny baby we can see the benefit of putting energy toward growth rather than the effort to regulate systems. The mother isn’t just an added bonus in this situation. The continued physical contact between mother and baby is essential to the individual baby. In the case of the baby in Australia, his mother’s closeness saved his life. Maybe this is true more than we realize. If this is true person by person, it makes sense that such care scaled up to a species level helped to focus development. More babies survived. More babies put their energy into growth, and everyone who followed them benefitted.
Babies thrive in kangaroo care. Kangaroo care isn’t a nice addition or a recent phenomenon but a necessity for all babies to reach their full physical and emotional potential.
Baby Carrier Industry Alliance, “Position Paper on Babywearing and Kangaroo Care,” October 2010.
“Kangaroo Care,” Cleveland Clinic, 1995 (reviewed January 15, 2009).
Holly Richardson, “Kangaroo Care: Why Does It Work?” Midwifery Today, volume 44, Winter 1997.