By Silvio Aladjem MD
You may or may not have ever heard of Kangaroo Care (KC). Its name was inspired by the Kangaroo, the Australian creature that stands erect on its two hind legs and has two short front legs. The female has an external abdominal pouch. Kangaroos give birth prematurely, and the newborn kangaroo climbs into the mother’s pouch where it remains until its growth and development is completed.. KC is derived from this natural behavior.
Historically, KC was first introduced in Colombia in 1978 by Dr. E. Rey, at that time Professor of Pediatrics at the University in Bogota. Dr. Rey was struggling with limited resources and high neonatal mortality, particularly in premature infants. By placing the naked newborn on the naked chest of the mother, with a blanket to cover the back of the baby, the newborn was able to keep warm. Mothers were encouraged to breastfeed at will. This simple method, later known as KC, was found to be particularly effective in premature infants, although it can be done on term infants as well..
What is the idea behind KC? First and foremost, it keeps the infant warm. In countries where incubators are not available, this simple procedure can, believe it or not, save the life of a premature infant. Preterm babies do not have the ability to maintain their temperature. Hypothermia after birth, can be fatal to such tiny babies. From Colombia to India, KC is a lifesaving procedure that does not cost a penny. It also favorably influences the heart rate and breathing of the infant, making them regular, the baby sleeps better, and the mother not only bonds with the infant, but there are studies which have shown that breast milk is produced in more generous amounts. It is a win-win natural behavior.
In our culture, fortunately, we do not have to worry about a newborn becoming hypothermic. But KC goes further than keeping the baby warm.
A recent study at Bar-Ilan University reported on a 10 year study of infants that received KC compared to a group of infants that did not. At 10 years of age, the infants who received KC .showed better cognitive skills, an improved response to stress and better neurological maturity. The mothers, on the other hand, were more sensitive and expressed an enhanced maternal behavior. Women have also shown an increased confidence in their ability to care for the newborn, thus enhancing the feeling of parenthood.
In the neonatal intensive care unit, some premature infants may be attached to electronic equipment that monitors or performs vital tasks for the newborn premie. That should not prevent from giving the infant KC. In fact, your emotional involvement with the newborn is greater and the feeling of security, as well anxiety, improves.
KC is repeated daily or several times a day, usually for 15 to 30 minutes at a time. Some advocate longer periods. It is generally advised that premie infants should be kept on KC for 6 months while term infants for 3 months, after birth.
In our high tech environment today, we tend to forget that simple approaches may have a benefit. KC stands as one example of simple things that matter. In other countries KC is the “normal” procedure after the birth of a baby, be this term or premature. Not so in the US, unfortunately. Pregnant women can change this state of affairs. Talk to your doctor and visit the hospital where you intend to deliver. Talk to the nursing staff on the obstetrical unit and find out if you can partake of KC. If not, ask why. There is no reason in the world that it should not be possible to accommodate you, if they do not do it routinely.
We talk a lot about “normal labor,” “birthing experience,” “maternal empowering,” and yet KC is practiced on a very low scale. There is nothing that would increase your bonding more than spending KC time with you newborn. Once you have your baby on your bare chest, the infant typically snuggles on the breast and falls asleep within a few minutes. It is known that breasts increase or decrease their temperature to better serve the infants change in temperature. The infant, thanks to the maternal body warmth, spares its own energies, calms down, recuperates from the stress of labor, its heart rate and respiratory rate stabilize, and as such this sense of well-being, favors and supports growth and development.
It’s simple, it’s effective, it’s fulfilling, and the baby will smile.
As the old saying goes: Try it, you’ll like it.
SILVIO ALADJEM MD, an obstetrician/gynecologist and Maternal Fetal Medicine (high risk obstetrics) specialist, is Professor Emeritus in obstetrics and gynecology at Michigan State University, College of Human Medicine, in Lansing, MI. He is the author of “10,000 babies: my life in the delivery room” now available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble and other book stores. Dr. Aladjem published extensively in Scientific Medical Journals and wrote several textbooks in the specialty. He can be reached through his website, www.drsilvio.com.