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The value of skin-to-skin contact is widely recognized across the globe. In many cases, as long as both the mother and baby are stable, a newborn will be placed on their mother’s chest almost immediately after birth. This promotes bonding, regulates the baby’s temperature, and encourages successful breastfeeding (if that's possible and desired by the mother).
For preterm infants (born before 37 weeks gestation) and low-birth-weight infants (under 5 lbs 8.1 oz or 2.5 kg), skin-to-skin contact is even more important, specifically a practice known as "kangaroo care" or "kangaroo mother care." Now, a far-reaching study involving over 15,000 preterm and low-birth-weight infants has found that kangaroo care is an important tool for helping these vulnerable babies survive.
Remarkably, kangaroo care was found to reduce infant mortality during the first month of life by an astounding 32% when compared to conventional care that did not emphasize skin-to-skin contact. The benefits were even more significant when the kangaroo care began within the first 24 hours and was practiced for at least eight hours per day. The findings underscore the importance of involving parents in neonatal care. Except in cases where the newborn is extremely premature or unstable, many medical interventions and monitoring methods can still take place during kangaroo mother care, rather than leaving the baby alone in an incubator.
So how does it work? Kangaroo care involves placing the infant upright on the bare chest of the mother (or another family member) so that as much skin comes into contact as possible. The baby wears only a diaper and a hat and is held in place by a stretchy wrap, allowing the parent’s body temperature to help with the infant’s own thermoregulation. This closeness provides physiological and psychological benefits and multisensory stimulation and promotes breastfeeding when practiced with the infant's mother.
The value of closeness:
- Many NICUs in the United States and around the world already encourage kangaroo mother care for premature infants (according to one study, 82%), though guidelines in policies can vary dramatically among hospitals.
- Kangaroo mother care was developed in Bogotá, Colombia in the early 1980s in response to high mortality rates for preterm and low-birth-weight infants, many of whom were not receiving adequate care in incubators in the NICU. One of the tenets of kangaroo care is for the infant to go home with their family as soon as possible, provided there are no complications that require continued medical care in a hospital setting.
- The study, published earlier this week in the medical journal BMJ Gobal Health, also found that kangaroo care led to fewer hospitalizations and lessened the risk of severe infections.