by: Michael Kabel
If you could make your child smarter, more independent, and seriously reduce their likelihood of respiratory infection and serious illness, would you carry them like a kangaroo?
Research shows a practice known as kangaroo care provides all of the benefits above while encouraging the child towards more independence and a greater sense of freedom in their environment. As its name suggests, kangaroo care is the practice of carrying an infant so that skin-to-skin contact exists between the child and the person carrying it at all times. The practice was first developed as a means of encouraging preterm babies to bond with their mothers; beginning in the 1990s, the practice became extended to fullterm babies as well.
In most cases, the child wears a diaper and is held against the mother or father’s bare chest. The baby is tied in a head-up position in such a manner that a strip of cloth holds its head and neck up, as a means to prevent apnea. Behind the baby, the parent wears clothing that opens in the front. Once secured, the rhythm of the parent’s breathing stimulates and encourages the child’s own respiration, aiding in the development of the respiratory muscles. Researchers in Sweden have found breathing increases dramatically in preterm infants: respiratory distress sometimes disappears in as little as 48 hours, and four times fewer cases of apnea are diagnosed. Colic may also be reduced, as well as respiratory and nosocomial infections.
Experts encourage parents interested in kangaroo care to begin its practice virtually immediately after birth, with exclusive breastfeeding beginning 30 minutes to two hours later. Some experts encourage mothers to use the method for six weeks; this time allows for breastfeeding and for both mother and child to fully recuperate from the delivery experience. Of course, the normal baby care measures should be maintained, for fullterm and especially preterm babies: diapers need to be immediately changed, and the baby should be kept warm and dry. Changing times notwithstanding, the parent and child can remain in the “kangaroo” configuration for as long as desired.
The use of kangaroo care for preterm infants has grown by leaps and bounds since its introduction into neonatal intensive care units (NICU’s) in Bogotá, Columbia in 1978. A recent survey showed that more than 200 NICU’s in the United States now use some form of kangaroo care for their preterm patients, up from just 70 units during the early 1990s.
The technique has proven to result in shortened hospital stays, sometimes reducing the time spent in NICU’s by as much as fifty percent. Premature babies who receive “kangarooing” often sleep better and are quicker to gain weight and develop respiratory self-sufficiency. Exclusive breastfeeding remains a vital part of the practice, however, and mothers should expect to provide frequent feedings, especially during the child’s first few weeks.
A 1998 study showed that babies kangarooed for more than 50 minutes were eight times more likely to spontaneously breastfeed. As the child is already positioned close to the breast, the skin-to-skin contact encourages milk letdown. Experts advise parents to place an extra baby blanket beneath the child’s head, to catch excess runoff.
Possibly the most fascinating study involving mothers and babies using the kangaroo care technique involves matching body temperatures. A 1990 study revealed mothers will synch their body temperature to match that of the children lashed to them. The study showed mothers increase their body temperature to warm the baby if it gets cold, and decrease body temperature if the child becomes too warm. Besides the obvious comfort benefit for the child, such temperature regulation also encourages the child to sleep in comfort, which allows its delicate systems to focus on growing. The end, total result is that kangarooed preterm children often grew much faster than children dependant on a warming table.
Finally, kangaroo care offers benefits to the hospital and community as well as the family. NICU’s and pediatrics departments in inner cities and rural areas have found kangarooing a great relief on scarce funding and equipment resources. For the community itself, the reduced infant mortality rates and alleviated stress on public resources and family welfare are also valuable.
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