When Ali Andrew Li was born on Jan. 7, he was gently placed on his mother’s chest, where doctors cleaned and examined him and covered him with a warm blanket.
“I just loved it,” his mother, Salma Shabaik, a family physician who lives in Los Angeles, says. “It was really nice to have the baby right there beneath my eyes where I could feel him, touch him, kiss him.”
That was different than the birth of her son Elias two years ago; he was whisked away to a bassinet to be examined. And unlike Elias, who cried a lot after delivery, Shabaik says Ali stopped crying “within seconds” after being placed on her chest.
Kangaroo mother care has been widely used worldwide to care for premature babies, and it’s gaining popularity in caring for healthy full term babies like Ali as well. It is as it sounds: Like a kangaroo’s pouch, mothers hold their naked newborns on their bare chest for the first few hours of life.
At Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center where Ali was born, the technique is routinely practiced for healthy mothers and newborns. The baby gets to know their mother immediately, says Dr. Larry Gray, behavioral and developmental pediatrician at Comer Children’s Hospital, University of Chicago Medicine. “The baby gets landed in a trusting environment,” he says, reassuring them that life outside the womb can also be “soft, comfortable and warm.”
The benefits are many, according to Dr. Lydia Kyung-Min Lee, an ob-gyn at UCLA. Not only is the baby happier, she says, but his or her vitals are more stable. Body temperature, heart and breathing rate normalize more quickly. The close contact also allows the baby to be exposed to the same bacteria as the mother, which can protect against allergies and infection in the future. Infants who receive kangaroo care breast feed more easily, Lee says, and their mothers tend to breast feed for longer periods of time, which is “all good.”
Babies also seem to suffer less pain. Almost 20 years ago, Gray studied how babies respond to a heel prick to draw blood, a procedure that screens newborns for genetic disorders. He found that when healthy newborns had kangaroo care, there was less facial grimacing and crying suggesting pain, compared to babies who had been swaddled and had the procedure in their bassinets, “sort of alone.”
One of the first places to show how this technique can help preemies was Colombia in the 1990s. There, hospitals with no access to incubators and other equipment often sent home preemies with no expectation that they would live. But doctors were surprised to see that babies whose mothers carried them close, skin to skin, not only survived but thrived.
This was a “serendipitous magical finding,” says Gray, suggesting that skin-to-skin contact acted something like a “natural incubator.”
Gray also points to the work of Myron Hofer, a psychiatrist with Columbia University Medical Center who studies attachment between mother and infants. Hofer coined the term “hidden regulators” that pass between mother and baby. It’s not just that mother and baby are together, Gray says, but also that the mother is in some way “programming the baby, the breathing, temperature and heart rate.”
That “magic” can also happen between baby and father, too, says Gray, if there’s skin-to-skin contact. And if mothers or babies are very sick and have to be isolated, Gray suggests mothers take any opportunity to hold their infant skin to skin. Even a little bit of kangaroo contact, he says, can be beneficial.
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