The birth of an infant can be a joyous time for mothers and their family. But, what if your infant is born prematurely (before 37 weeks gestational age) or requires care in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU)? Parents may fear that the bonding with their infant will not be the same. Some patients in the NICU may spend months being separated from their parents. This is where Kangaroo Care can help. If you haven’t heard of Kangaroo Care, you may have heard of Skin-To-Skin Care. Skin-To-Skin Care happens right after birth when the infant is placed on your chest while the cord is being cut and the infant is allowed to remain on the chest (if vital signs are stable) until the infant successfully breast feeds. Kangaroo Care goes beyond that first hour. It is a type of care that can continue while you and your infant are on post-partum or even while little ones are staying in the NICU.
So what is Kangaroo Care? Kangaroo Care is the process of holding an infant clothed only in a diaper and hat, bare-chest to bare-chest, ventral-surface to ventral surface, by the mother, father or others. The infant is then covered with a blanket and will need to go through a sleep cycle, so a minimum of 60 minutes of holding is necessary. If the infant is tolerating KC, then the infant can remain there for hours.
Kangaroo Care was first implemented in Bogota, Columbia over 25 years ago in response to overcrowded nurseries and not enough incubators or nurses to take care of preterm infants. Those infants that were held in the Kangaroo Care position by their mothers actually thrived and survived. Kangaroo Care (KC) and Kangaroo Mother Care (KMC) are terms recognized by the World Health Organization. In the United States, Kangaroo Care awareness is growing stronger and more and more hospitals are offering and educating parents about this type of care.
Infants may benefit from KC in many ways. Note that some infants, especially those that are in the NICU, may not be able to do KC until they are stable. Each infant is unique in their diagnosis, so please check with your nurse or doctor to see when your infant may be able to be held in Kangaroo Care.
The benefits to the infant are:
- Stabilizes heart rate, breathing and oxygen saturations
- Stabilizes temperature
- Allows for quiet sleep which is important for brain maturation and promotes brain connectivity and complexity. The longer the better for the preterm infant
- Decreases Cortisol (stress hormone) levels both in mom and infant
- Reduces crying
- Increases weight gain
- Accelerates autonomic and neurobehavioral development
- Decreases pain response
- Decreases infections
- Earlier hospital discharge (NICU patient)
- Stabilizes blood sugar
- Increase success for breast feeding
The benefits to the parents include:
- Increases milk production
- The uterus will contract and return back to its normal size sooner
- Decreases depression in mom
- Gaining confidence in the care of your infant
- A feeling of completing the gestational period especially with a preterm birth (before 37 weeks)
- Enhances attachment and bonding
- Increases success for breast feeding
This is just a small list of the benefits of KC. How an infant responds to KC will be maternal/infant dependent. There will be some infants who do not like being in Kangaroo Care or who may not tolerate it. Be patient with them and perhaps in time, they will enjoy being the unique experience KC offers.
During KC, the infant is exposed to critical stimuli for brain development which include:
- Vestibular system (balance and movement) in inner ear from the breathing movement of the chest moving up and down
- Tactile (touch) from feeling the parent’s skin and warmth
- Olfactory (smell) from the scent of the parent and mother’s milk
- Newborns can smell their lactating mothers up to 50 feet away!
- Auditory (hearing) from the heartbeat and voices
- Visual (seeing) an infant after 32 weeks gestational age will be able to start focusing in on parental faces
- Gustatory (taste) will happen before or after KC when then infant nuzzles or nurses from the breast
While at the hospital, ask your bedside nurse if you can practice Kangaroo Care with your infant. Kangaroo Care can be a wonderful experience for both mom and dad. I encourage all dads to do Kangaroo Care. Sometimes dads are a little reluctant, but they will enjoy holding their newborn and it is a great bonding experience. Kangaroo Care is also beneficial for adoptive parents. The infant will achieve the same benefits with an adoptive parent holding them.
So, if your newborn, term or preterm, has to spend time in the NICU, remember Kangaroo Care and the benefits that it can offer both you and your little one. Your bonding will be like nothing else!
Dawn Miller-Hanna graduated from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas in 1988 and has been a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) nurse for 27 years. She has been a NICU nurse in Reno for the past 18 years and was Northern Nevada’s first Neonatal Nurse Developmental Care Specialist. She is passionate about Kangaroo Care and bringing awareness to the community about this specialized care.