You’ve probably heard that skin-to-skin contact is important for newborns. The question is: why?

Angie Robertson, a nurse practitioner in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at Novant Health Forsyth Medical Center explains how skin-to-skin, sometimes dubbed “kangaroo care” started and why it’s so important.

Back to basics

The term kangaroo care originated at San Juan de Dios Hospital in Bogota, Colombia in the 1970s. It was there that Dr. Edgar Rey Sanabria and Dr. Hector Martinez faced overcrowding and a high mortality rate for premature babies that were often squeezed three-at-a-time into incubators.

Rey turned to Mother Nature for help. He studied how kangaroo mothers care for their newborns by holding them close to the chest. Inspired by his findings, Sanabria and Martinez decided to test the theory on humans by encouraging new mothers to hold their babies skin-to-skin after birth. Newborn deaths and infections declined immediately.

“If you think about it, mothers have been delivering babies and holding them close to the chest since the very beginning,” said Robertson. “Over time, we have realized that even with all of the state-of-the-art technology that we have today, that we’re losing some of the basic skills that parents provide and share naturally with their babies.”

It helps with breastfeeding

Gone are the days when baby pops out and is immediately carted down to the nursery for observation and then placed among dozens of other infants. Today, newborns are placed directly on their mother’s chest after birth and they “room in” with mom for their entire hospital stay.

Premature and low weight babies may require some extra attention from the NICU prior to skin-to-skin contact. The NICU is an advanced 56-bed unit at Forsyth Medical Center. It is well-equipped with top technology and a team of highly-trained and experienced providers. Once the baby is deemed medically stable, the child can then be “kangarooed.

The first 60 minutes after delivery is referred to as the “golden hour,” an important time for mothers to bond with their child by way of direct skin-to-skin contact. This is also considered to be the first step to a successful breastfeeding experience.

“We have found that when a mom does kangaroo care and then pumps, she has an increased milk supply because she has had that bonding time with her baby, even if the baby may not be quite old enough to go to the breast,” Robertson said.

Most Novant Health hospitals are recognized as baby-friendly hospitals, part of a global program sponsored by the World Health Organization and the United Nations Children’s Fund to recognize hospitals that offer an optimal level of care for infant feeding.

Since 1914, Forsyth Medical Center has delivered more than 300,000 babies.

‘Sing to their baby’

Research also shows that kangaroo care can help with a baby’s heart and respiratory rate, sleep, motor function and brain development. It also helps to improve the immune system for premature babies, who are at a higher risk of infection.

“Nurses are very good at their jobs, but the one thing they don’t do is skin-to-skin contact,” said Robertson. “We have noticed that parents typically take on a new kind of voice when they’re talking to their baby and that relationship is being formed. So, we encourage moms to talk to their baby, to read to their baby, and sing to their baby.

“Simply being present and engaging with your baby can go a long way when it comes to early development.”

The whole family can help

Kangaroo care is not an exclusive mother-baby activity. Robertson recommends that the entire family get involved.

“After giving birth, mothers are typically exhausted and too tired to safely hold their baby,” said Robertson. “So, it’s great when dads or grandparents or even siblings take turns to help out.”

And there is no time limit or designated stop date for kangaroo care after the family returns home.

“A lot of it depends on what you have going on in your household and if there are other children and chores that need to be taken care of,” said Robertson. “Although an hour is recommended, life happens and it is important to give yourself a break as a parent and to remember that any amount of time spent doing kangaroo care is beneficial.”

At Forsyth Medical Center, some mothers visit their premature babies in the NICU late at night to do skin-on-skin contact before bed.

Robertson added, “Kangaroo care before bed is a great way to help both mother and baby relax and sleep better.”

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