What a parent can do to bond with their child in the NICU and encourage faster growth.

Parents of preemies can bond with their child using kangaroo careKangaroo care refers to the practice of cradling a baby using skin-to-skin contact to help stabilize the infant, increase weight gain and other developmental milestones, and improve the parent-child bond.  Kangaroo care was developed as a response to the high death rate in Colombian preemies in the late 1970s.  At the time, Columbia’s death rate for prematurely born infants was exorbitant.  About 70 percent of all preemies didn’t live to leave the NICU, succumbing to infections, respiratory diseases, and lack of attention.

Dr. Edgar Rey Sanabria, a professor of Neonatology in Columbia, discovered that infants swaddled close to their mothers’ bodies during the day instead of left in cribs or incubators not only beat the odds of survival, but actually began to thrive.  Even in hospitals where incubators were scarce, babies with low birth weights could still be kept warm by their mothers’ skin, and increase their weight by breastfeeding on demand.  This, in turn, freed up incubators for preemies too delicate to be handled.

After seeing the encouraging results, doctors in the United States adopted this methodology.  While mainstream caregivers do not recommend Kangaroo Care as a stand-in for modern technology, most neonatologists recognize the benefits of skin-to-skin contact and will still encourage parents of preemies to use it as a way to keep their child warm and calm outside the incubator, so they feel comfortable enough to feed.  Many research studies have found that preemies who are kangarooed have higher oxygen saturation levels, higher temperatures, and will burn less calories during basic functioning.

Benefits of Kangaroo Care:

  • Stabilizes heart rate
  • Regulates breathing pattern
  • Increases amount of time sleep
  • Increases weight gain
  • More frequent breastfeeding sessions
  • Earlier discharge from the NICU

What Can I Expect During Kangaroo Care?

When mothers kangaroo their preemies, the baby will typically lay against the breast and fall asleep within a few minutes.  While the infant is sleeping, the breasts will change temperature to help regulate the baby’s body temperature.  This usually results in the baby feeling more comfortable, which leads to longer, deeper sleep, as well as on-demand breastfeeding and needing to expend less energy to stay warm, which leads to faster weight gain.  Even when a preemie is snuggled up to its father, his heartbeat, breathing rate, and body temperature helps to stabilize the baby’s own heart and breathing rates.  Frequent kangaroo care can also encourage brain development.

How Do I Perform Kangaroo Care?

Ideally, infants should be placed on the mother’s skin immediately after birth.  This strengthens the familial bond and encourages the child to begin breastfeeding straightaway.  To acclimatize the child to multiple caregivers and provide stimulation, it is also important for fathers of preemies to participate.

Steps to Kangarooing:

  • Remove any bras, undershirts, or closed tee shirts. Mothers and fathers should wear a shirt that opens in the front, such as a hospital gown or comfortable button-down, or go shirtless.
  • Your preemie will be positioned on your bare chest, wearing only their diaper and a hat to provide maximum skin-to-skin contact. The baby will lay in an upright position.
  • Cover your infant with your shirt or a light blanket. Make sure the baby can breathe and move comfortably.
  • Lie still and bond with your baby. Each session will typically last about an hour, and should be implemented at least four times per week.  Your baby will be resting during kangaroo care, so try your best not to disturb them or over-stimulate them.

To learn about the best ways to implement skin-to-skin contact, parents should speak with their NICU nurse.  You can also access the WHO’s Practical Guide to Kangaroo Mother Care here.

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