“Kangaroo care” and “skin-to-skin” are common phrases expectant and new parents learn, but while it’s easy to guess what they mean, why do they matter? UnityPoint Health Neonatal Nurse Practitioner, Kellie Gebauer-Steinick, explains the benefits of kangaroo care and skin-to-skin contact, for both babies and parents. Plus, she offers tips to optimize skin-to-skin time.
What is Kangaroo Care?
The phrase “kangaroo care” was termed for its similarities to how marsupials carry their young. Skin-to-skin care simulates the protective and nurturing environment of a kangaroo pouch. By definition, kangaroo care is developmental care by holding an infant skin-to-skin against the mother or father’s bare chest.
“Kangaroo care first started in the 1970s, as a means to promote bonding and early breastfeeding in full-term infants,” Gebauer-Steinick says. “In the late 70s, this practice was extended to preterm infants due to over-crowded nurseries, high mortality rates, high infection rates and a lack of resources, like warming devices, known as isolettes. Fast forward nearly 50 years, and the practice of kangaroo care is frequently used in NICUs around the world, due to its profound benefits to both mother and infant.”
Gebauer-Steinick says the concept of skin-to-skin is much like kangaroo care, and in many cases, the terms are used interchangeably. In current day, skin-to-skin is typically a term used for full-term infants, describing how much of the first hours and days of the infant’s life are spent against the mother’s chest, promoting both bonding and breast milk production. Kangaroo care is more often used when referring to the care a pre-term baby in the NICU receives.
Benefits of Skin-to-Skin Kangaroo Care
Kangaroo care offers physiological and psychological benefits, both to infants and parents. Gebauer-Steinick says kangaroo care can take place any time of day, as regularly as the infant tolerates. She recommends daily, for a minimum of one hour, but any amount of kangaroo care can be beneficial.
Benefits to Infants
- Physiologic stability (temperature and blood pressure regulation, heart rate and respiratory stability)
- Brain, cognitive and motor development
- Improved immune system function
- Weight gain
- Better, deep sleep
- Greater bonding with decrease in stress and crying
- Decreased length of stay, pain and stress from environment (pre-term infants in the NICU)
Benefits to Parents
- Attachment and bonding
- Sensitivity and responsiveness to infant
- Confidence in providing care and transitioning to home
- Breast milk production, greater success in breastfeeding and decreased risk of postpartum depression
“Infants are typically soothed by the sound of their mom or dad’s heartbeat. If your baby is fussy, try covering him/her with a warmed blanket while against your chest and decrease external stimuli. For pre-term infants, rocking and stroking can be over-stimulating and may tire the infant, decreasing the overall benefits of kangaroo care,” Gebauer-Steinick says.
She also reminds parents to practice safe skin-to-skin time, remaining awake during kangaroo care. This promotes safe practices at home due to the risk of infant falls and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
How Long to Kangaroo Care and Skin-to-Skin
Gebauer-Steinick encourages parents to continue skin-to-skin as long as both parents and baby benefit from the experience.
“I have yet to meet an infant who does not enjoy or tolerate skin-to-skin contact, unless medically unstable. Many parents become discouraged if a kangaroo attempt doesn’t go as they had hoped. But, the benefits of kangaroo care are immense. Give your little one a few days to regroup, and try again!”
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