There’s a photograph of me taken a few days after my first child was born. I am wearing the same pajamas I had on for the full day before, my hair has a greasy shine, my eyelids are drooping as if they need a prop to keep them open and, though it can’t be seen, I remember that distinct ‘just had a baby’ stench.
At that time, I didn’t know much about caring for a newborn. I had no idea how often I should nurse, how many wet diapers there should be, or when I would ever be able to fit a shower in. I wanted the secrets to keeping my baby happy, healthy and safe, but to find these I had to navigate between my instincts and what people around me told me that I should be doing.
Through all the fog and frazzling going around in my brain at that time, I remember thinking back to being on a beach in Australia watching some wild kangaroos only feet away from me. I thought of the one mama with her newborn joey (baby kangaroo), finding myself envying a mama kangaroo being able to provide warmth and comfort to her baby seemingly without any effort. It got me thinking…
Kangaroo mamas and us human mamas have something in common to offer our babies.
When a newborn kangaroo is born, it goes directly into its mother’s pouch for the first eight months of life. Her pouch offers warmth, safety and protection that the baby can’t provide for itself. As has been scientifically documented, human mothers can offer this to their newborns with the same benefits. This kind of care has been coined kangaroo care. Though we may not have a built-in pouch, there is a way for human mothers to provide one, as I’ll get to in a bit.
Kangaroo care has been used around the world for centuries, but the first documentation of it being used specifically to help a group of babies and termed ‘kangaroo care’ was in Bogota, Columbia in the late 1970’s, as a response to the high death rate in preterm babies there.
“There, the death rate for premature infants was 70 percent. The babies were dying of infections, respiratory problems, and simply due to lack of attention. Researchers found that babies who were held close to their mothers’ bodies for large portions of the day not only survived, but thrived“(Cleveland Clinic).
There are many stories shared where a baby is born stillborn, but after being placed on a mother’s chest, skin to skin, the baby starts to breathe. The connection of the skin to skin contact is no coincidence. This is beautifully exemplified in the following video.
The Many Benefits of Kangaroo Care
Benefits For The Baby:
- A stable heart rate (no bradycardia)
- More regular breathing (a 75 percent decrease in apneic episodes)
- Improved oxygen saturation levels
- No cold stress
- Longer periods of sleep
- More rapid weight gain
- More rapid brain development
- Reduction of “purposeless” activity
- Decreased crying, longer periods of alertness
- More successful breastfeeding episodes
- Earlier hospital discharge
Benefits For The Parents:
- “Closure” over having a baby in NICU
- Feeling close to their babies (earlier bonding)
- Having confidence that they can care for their baby, even better than hospital staff
- Gaining confidence that their baby is well cared for
- The feeling of being in control (Richardson)
“In addition to benefits that are observable in the NICU, research points to long-term advantages as well. Newborns who experienced kangaroo care in the NICU were more attached and bonded to their mothers over time.
Babies were more alert after six months and their mothers were more attuned to their infant’s cues and experienced less depression.
In early childhood, children receiving kangaroo care also show increased social competence, a positive sense of self and improved cognitive and motor development. These benefits are all signs of healthy brain development” (Beatty).
Kangaroo Care is Not Just For Premies
“The word “kangaroo” is used as such animals have very immature offspring, like premature babies. But in reality, this kangaroo-like skin-to-skin contact is actually essential for human newborns, as all primates are cared for in this way also. So Kangaroo Mother Care should be for ALL NEWBORNS …not just premies”(KMC).
All babies experience stress when being separated from their mother. “Humans are the only mammals who practice such maternal-neonate separation, but its physiological impact on the baby has been unknown until now (2011).
Researchers measured heart rate variability in 2-day-old (full term) sleeping babies for one hour each during skin-to-skin contact with mother and alone in a cot next to mother’s bed. Neonatal autonomic activity was 176% higher and quiet sleep 86% lower during maternal separation compared to skin-to-skin contact”(Science Daily).
How To Practice Kangaroo Care
Kangaroo Care is essentially skin to skin contact with a newborn for an extended period of time. This can be done by either parent under blankets, or, if a warm day, without any covering. Of course, in today’s world where there is something for everything, you can provide an actual pouch, which brings me to the next heading…
There’s A Shirt For That…
You don’t need anything to practice kangaroo care. Placing the baby skin to skin with a blanket over you both is a great way to practice. But, like just about anything else, ‘there’s something for that.’
And, they’re kind of cool – shirts that allow you to place the baby skin to skin so that you have a bit more mobility while practicing skin to skin. Here’s what’s on the market. (Each image is affiliate linked to where to buy).
What I Know Now (3 kids and 9 years later)
Had I known about these shirts when my son was born, the picture of me in the faded blue pajamas probably would have been of me in one of these shirts instead. I would still feel lost and frazzled, but I would have known about kangaroo care and that all any baby really needs is the warmth, safety and protection of his mama. Everything else falls into place.
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Have a story about kangaroo care or skin to skin that you want to share? Tell us about it in the comments, we’d love to hear it!
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