Kangaroo care: 8 benefits of skin-to-skin contact for babies

Although she was nervous when her water broke at 33 weeks, Rachel Avery Conley of Walpole, Mass. wasn’t at all surprised.

“I always knew he was going to be a preemie so I had an opportunity to do a lot of reading beforehand,” she said.

At just 17 weeks, she learned that she had cervical insufficiency, a condition that caused her cervix to prematurely shorten. Women who have cervical insufficiency are at a higher risk for miscarriage and premature birth.

Rachel had learned about kangaroo care, a method of skin-to-skin contact between moms (or dads) and their babies. It has been shown to help premature babies, in particular, thrive.

After her son Lucas was born and spent his first night in the NICU, Rachel suggested that her husband Chris be the first one to hold him skin-to-skin so they could bond.

“It was the first time Lucas opened his eyes,” Rachel recalls. “It was tears all around.”

Yet four days later, Lucas became jaundiced and he couldn’t be held. His blood pressure dropped, he was more lethargic and he had more bradycardia episodes, which meant his heart rate would slow down.

“Up until that point he didn’t have any [episodes]. I attribute that to the fact that we were holding him and having skin-to-skin care as much as we could,” she said.

Rachel and Chris continued with kangaroo care at least once a day during Lucas’ 22 days in the NICU.

“Every time we did it, he would feed better and sleep better,” she said.

Lucas went home three weeks earlier than expected and today he’s a healthy, happy 3year old.

Benefits of kangaroo care
As more hospitals implement the Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative— which promotes breastfeeding— kangaroo care is also becoming a priority, both for pre-term and full-term infants, said Kristy Love, the NICU Family Advocate at Mercy Children’s Hospital in St. Louis. Mercy Children’s Hospital and other hospitals around the country hold “Kangaroo-a-thons,” to educate parents about the benefits.

In fact, research shows kangaroo care can reduce hospital re-admission for babies and decrease hospital stays.

“This is what we didcenturies ago— it’s only in the past 100 years that we’ve taken the babies away from mom and put them in a crib or a nursery,” said Cindy Shelton, a registered nurse and an international board-certified lactation consultant at Los Robles Hospital in Thousand Oaks, Calif.

1. Supports brain development
Experts agree, brain development is by far the most important benefit of skin-to-skin contact. Since newborns’ brains are not fully developed and preemies often lag behind in their developmental milestones, skin-to-skin contact actually fires up the parts of the brain responsible for social and emotional development. So if skin-to-skin contact is initiated right after birth, “your baby is put in this safe environment and learns to trust,” Shelton said.

The effects can be seen as your baby gets older too. In fact, babies who practiced kangaroo care for one hour a day for two weeks had better sleep, a better hormonal response to stress, a more mature functioning of their nervous system, and better thinking skills at 10 years old, found a study in the journal Biological Psychiatry.

2. Promotes bonding
You might have an expectation that the minute your baby is born, you’ll feel an immediate bond with him, but that’s not always the case.  Skin-to-skin contact can help promote bonding because it makes you calmer, so you’re able to soothe your baby, which in turn builds your confidence, Shelton said.

3. Improves breathing
For premature babies who have underdeveloped lungs, skin-to-skin contact can help improve their oxygen saturation levels.

4. Regulates temperature
Instead of putting a baby in an incubator to warm him up, skin-to-skin contact with a blanket over the pair can improve the baby’s temperature in just 30 minutes.

“Mom’s temperature will increase if baby is too cold and decrease if baby is too hot,”
Shelton said.

5. Makes breastfeeding easier
Skin-to-skin contact can make it easier for babies to latch on without assistance and helps moms breast feed for a longer amount of time, which can also increase their milk supply.

“It’s an unlimited buffet so babies self-regulate when they breastfeed. They’re not going to overfeed or underfeed but sometimes they want a snack,” Shelton said.

6. Reduces stress levels
Sometimes babies have high blood sugar as a result of the birth process, which is a stressor itself. Skin-to-skin contact can help babies regulate their hormones and reduce their overall stress.

7. Better sleep
Babies who are put skin-to-skin have better sleep-wake cycles and a better REM state whether they’re in a quiet alert state or a quiet sleep state, Shelton said.

8. Prevents postpartum depression
The huge crash of estrogen and progesterone after delivery can trigger postpartum depression in some moms. And for those with babies in the NICU, the stress can make them even more susceptible.

Yet skin-to-skin contact can help to release oxytocin, the same “love hormone,” released during breastfeeding, that may be protective against postpartum depression.

“The more time you can be one-on-one and be as close as possible to your baby, that definitely releases a lot of stress,” Love said.

How to implement kangaroo care
If you plan to do kangaroo care with your baby, it’s a good idea to have a birth plan and talk to your physician or midwife about it, even if you have a cesarean section.

Although experts say it’s ideal to do it around the clock, especially in the first few days of life, it may not always be possible depending on your baby’s needs.

Kangaroo care can be done after your baby comes home too, up to eight weeks or beyond, whether you’re breastfeeding or bottle-feeding.

“Do it as often as you can and as long as you can,” Shelton said.

Instead of sticking to a regimented schedule or feeling disappointed that you didn’t do more, like all things in motherhood, your best is always enough.