Humans take a lesson from the wild with kangaroo care for preemies
Research shows that skin-to-skin contact is vital.
Giving birth to a baby early and unexpectedly throws parent and baby into survival mode, but when caregivers help facilitate the use of skin-to-skin contact, both mom and baby can emerge healthier and happier.
Across the globe, an estimated 15 million babies per year are born preterm, according to the World Health Organization. These babies have the arduous task of developing outside the protective walls of their mothers’ wombs. But the expanding body of research from the Department of Psychology at Bar-Ilan University in Israel shows that mothers’ bodies can still play a vital role in the growth of their little ones, even after birth.
The tremendous benefits of kangaroo care have been studied by researchers for decades. Their findings highlight that babies engaging in skin-to-skin contact as newborns – especially preemies, babies who are born before 37 weeks of gestation – exhibit healthier stabilization of their overall body systems, including better body temperature regulation, more normalized heart and breathing rates, improved and quicker breast milk production and more organized sleep patterns, to name a few. Through the work of Ruth Feldman, a researcher out of Bar-Ilan, we’re beginning to understand more about kangaroo care’s effects on babies’ cognitive development.
In a recent study conducted by Feldman’s team, researchers looked at kangaroo care in 73 prematurely born mother-baby pairs for 14 consecutive days. Then, during the child’s first decade of life, multiple physiologic, cognitive, parental mental health and mother-child relational measures were assessed. Part of what the researchers found revealed enhanced child cognitive development and executive functions all the way from six months to 10 years of age for the babies who received kangaroo care. The newborns were more alert and showed less gaze aversion and, by six months of age, infants scored higher on the Bayley Mental Developmental Index – a measurement of development in infants and toddlers.
For Denver mom Allison Lehman, kangaroo care – the practice of holding a baby so that there is direct skin-to-skin contact between parent and child – was greatly encouraged by her care providers at St. Joseph's Hospital when her baby Ezra was born prematurely at 31 weeks.
“Our hospital prided itself on being an evidence-based, family-centered NICU, and kangaroo care falls into both of those definitions,” she told From the Grapevine. In practice, the baby, often wearing only a diaper, snuggles onto the parent’s bare chest and is covered with part of their parent’s special shirt or a blanket, creating a pouch, much like a kangaroo’s.
“Our doctors emphasized that kangaroo care was an integral part of NICU care and was an aspect that only parents could provide,” Lehman added.
Babies aren’t the only ones experiencing the perks of kangaroo care – the Israeli study also showed that mothers experienced reduced anxiety and an increase in attachment behavior in the first several weeks after their baby was born.
Although the philosophy of kangaroo care is becoming more widely known and integrated into doctors’ patient care in recent years, humans have likely been instinctively initiating skin-to-skin contact between mom and baby since the dawn of time; close contact between mother and young is one of the defining features of mammals, Feldman noted in her research.
Feldman’s continued exploration of the cognitive aspects of kangaroo care aims to spotlight possible benefits that last beyond childhood, she told From the Grapevine. "At present, we are seeing these infants again at age 18 to examine their brain and understand whether early contact has long-term impact on the adult brain in terms of both structure and function.”
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