Kangaroo care (K care) is the practice of skin-to-skin contact between an infant and its parent (mother’s breast or father’s chest), which aims to decrease the death rate of preterm babies1. K care is offered to preterm infants who weigh 600 grams or less and those who have spent less than 26 weeks in the gestational period1. In general, the K care approach involves the mother holding the preterm/ underweight infant (naked or with diapers) upright next to their skin for one to three hours, mimicking what happens in a mother kangaroo’s pouch, hence the name of the practice1. Today, K care remains a highly recommended non-pharmacological and cost-effective approach by the Canadian Pediatric Society1.

In the late 1970s, the death rate for preterm babies in developing countries was 70%2. This dramatically high death rate was mainly caused by infections, respiratory diseases, and simply due to the lack of attention. Although the baby incubator was developed in the mid-nineteenth century, it was too expensive to be afforded by most families at the time. Due to the inaccessibility of infant incubation and the resulting increased risk of infection in premature infants, Dr. Pierre Budin went on to demonstrate the importance of breast milk and the mother-children attachment in infant development. Drawing from Budin’s work, Dr. Rey and Dr. Martinez introduced the idea of K care in 19834. The doctors presented K care as a fundamental alternative to the traditional neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) for preterm infants in Bogota, Columbia1,4. Currently, K Care is widely used in the NICU environment in Africa, Canada, Europe, South America, and the United States because of its benefits for the baby and its long-term positive effects on the family4.

The K care approach is extremely beneficial to neonates, especially those that are preterm. In general, K care  increases sleeping time and leads to a healthy physical status in the preterm or sick neonates with the primary advantage being the stabilization of vital signs such as heart rate1. Furthermore, a research study has demonstrated that K care improves the amount of sleeping time in neonates, for, in the study, infants that received K care experienced a significantly higher period of “quite sleeping time” than those who did not receive it4. Generally, sleep is critical for human development and it is important in maintaining overall health in human beings, with longer and deeper sleep improving the physical and mental health of neonates4. The optimum sleeping time for newborns is approximately 16 hours a day, which is two thirds of the daytime. Another study has shown that K care is important for growth and development in preterm babies5. Specifically, recent research observed that sensorimotor interventions such as massaging, a part of the K-care approach, stimulated the rate of weight gain in babies5. In addition, K care is a cost-effective and safe approach to reducing the infection rate while improving the physical development in preterm infants4,5.

Aside from benefiting preterm babies, K care also greatly benefits parents. Research studies illustrated that K care increases the breast milk supply from the mother, improves the relationship between children and parents, and boosts the parents’ sense of control2,4. In fact, a scientific study that aimed to examine the effect of K care on lactation observed K care improved lactation in mothers from America, Britain, the Netherlands, and Africa4. The increase in lactation was due to the K care stimulated release of oxytocin, a hormone from the pituitary gland that triggers the secretion of prolactin – a hormone that stimulates milk production4. In addition, this study also found that parents enjoy their interactions with infants and that the K care practice decreases the parents’ fear regarding their infants’ small size and fragility4.

It is undoubtedly fascinating that a natural bonding exercise has the ability to reduce the infection risk in preterm babies and maintain their overall health while also positively impacting parents, who are often overburdened with worry and fears. Though it does not replace the baby-incubator’s life-saving ability, K-Care acts as a supplementary practice with both long-term and short-term benefits.

By Kunyi Chen 

Please note that opinions expressed are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views and values of The Blank Page.

 Works Cited:

  1. Jefferies, A. L.; Canadian Paediatric Society, Fetus and Newborn Committee. Kangaroo care for the preterm infant and family.Paediatrics & Child Health. 201217, 141–143.
  2. Kangaroo Care. Cleveland Clinic Children’s Hospital. Retrieved from <http://my.clevelandclinic.org/childrens-hospital/health-info/ages-stages/baby/hic-Kangaroo-Care>
  3. Neonatal intensive care unit. Wikipedia. Retrieved from <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neonatal_intensive_care_unit#Early_years>
  4. Messmer, P. R.; Rodriguez, S.; Adams, J.; Wells-Gentry, J.; Washburn, K.; Zabaleta, I.; Abreu, S. Effect of kangaroo care on sleep time for neonates.1997, 23, 408+.
  5. Dodd, V. L. Book Review: Implications of Kangaroo Care for Growth and Development in Preterm Infants.JOGNN: Journal of Obstetric, Gynecologic, and Neonatal Nursing 2005, 34, 218-232.