As technology and medicine advance, more premature children are surviving at younger and younger ages. Even at just 23 weeks gestation, doctors are able to help children win the fight for their lives. But one particular action that is helping to save lives has nothing to do with doctors or medical equipment. It’s all about a mother’s instinct and inspiration found in nature.
In recent years, what’s known as Kangaroo Care has been popping up on medical television dramas, including Grey’s Anatomy. The holding method is based on the way a mother kangaroo carries her child in her pouch for a year, her baby always close to her skin, warmed by her body. In a similar fashion, a newborn human is placed on her mother’s bare chest – belly to belly, in between the breasts with the child’s head turned so she can hear her mother’s heartbeat.
The womb is the most comfortable place for a baby, and after birth, it’s jarring to not have the warmth and familiar sounds of life before birth. When a newborn is placed directly onto the mother’s skin after birth, the mother’s warmth and the sound of her heartbeat remind the child of that comfort. In addition, that skin-to-skin contact increases attachment between mother and child, supports infant brain development, and helps with breastfeeding. However, this skin-to-skin contact has become more than an opportunity to bond with your child right after birth; it is proving to actually save lives.
Kangaroo Care was first studied in Bogota, Columbia, beginning in 1983. Because of a lack of power and medical equipment, doctors found that Kangaroo Care was a promising and inexpensive way to help premature babies survive. In fact, they found that the mortality rate dropped from 70% to 30% when Kangaroo Care was implemented.
While either parent can do this, it is usually the mother who takes that first step. What researchers in Colombia learned is that the mother’s body responds to the needs of her child. When the baby gets cold, the mother’s body temperature increases to warm her child. When her child gets too warm, her body reacts to cool them both down. The child’s heartbeat and breathing can also be regulated by the mother’s heartbeat and breathing.
Kangaroo Care has also been shown to reduce infection, including respiratory tract disease and sepsis, and it can help shorten the length of hospital stay.
It’s an amazing discovery of how nature works.
20-ounce baby girl saved by skin-to skin contact
Carolyn Isbister shared her story on DrMomma.org. Her 24-week newborn baby girl weighed just 20 ounces at birth and doctors said she wouldn’t make it. With what she thought were only minutes with her baby, Isbister instinctively put her daughter inside of her shirt. She said:
I didn’t want her to die being cold. So I lifted her out of her blanket and put her against my skin to warm her up. Her feet were so cold. It was the only cuddle I was going to have with her, so I wanted to remember that moment.
That’s when the baby girl’s heart began to regulate. She took some breaths and let out a cry. Though the doctors were still convinced she would die, she fought on. The neonatologist at the hospital said he had never seen anything like it. The baby spent a few weeks on a ventilator, and at four months old, she went home with her family.
Kangaroo Care saved premature twins
Asabe Ibrahim gave birth to twins at just 26 weeks gestation. Her husband, convinced the babies would die, abandoned her and the children at the hospital. She had no support — only people telling her to give up.
“I always told people my babies were human beings and they must survive,” she said. “So, when I got to know about the kangaroo mother care, I started practising it because my children were not adding weight. After I started it, I was surprised to see my children adding weight.”
Ibrahim’s children began improving after she began skin-to-skin contact, and she spoke about the experience at the commemoration of World Prematurity Day in 2013.
Newborn in a coma saved by Kangaroo Care
Adam Chesire contracted group B strep at birth and at just one day old he stopped breathing and began to have seizures. He fell into a coma and had to be placed on life support. His parents were told that if he did survive, he would have speech, hearing, and vision problems.
“The told me to use kangaroo care after the way kangaroos care for their young in their pouches,” said Adam’s mother Charlotte Chesire. “Skin-to-skin contact is important. Adam is our miracle. He just refused to give up.”
Her son may have been at death’s door, but the instant she held him to her, he opened his eyes. She held her son for days as he grew stronger and began breastfeeding. She had said her goodbyes to Adam, but weeks later she was able to bring him home.
Baby boy is pronounced dead, but his mother’s touch brings him back
In perhaps the most remarkable story of the benefits of Kangaroo Care, a baby boy born with his twin sister at just 26 weeks gestation died. The doctor told the parents, Kate and David Ogg, that they were unable to save him. The devastated mother took her son and placed him skin-to-skin against her chest. She and her husband began to talk to their son and say their goodbyes, but then baby boy Jamie began to move.
The doctors and midwives told the parents that it was just a reflex, but as time ticked on for two hours, Jamie lifted his head. He grabbed his father’s finger, and he opened his eyes. His mother’s instinct to place him on her chest saved his life. He and his sister are now healthy six-year-olds.
While Kangaroo Care is certainly not a cure for any health condition, it has proven repeatedly that it is a natural and beautiful way to welcome every child into the world. It has also proven that it saves the lives of babies who are born too soon.
Preterm birth is a leading cause of neonatal death in the world, but Kangaroo Care has the potential to prevent 450,000 of those deaths with a 51% reduction in mortality for newborns weighing less than 70 ounces.
Countries around the world are beginning to make it standard practice now, but parents facing the premature birth of their children should know that it isn’t all about bonding. Kangaroo Care could save their baby’s life.