Advances in neonatal technology have fundamentally changed doctors’ ability to help preterm infants, and yet one of the most effective interventions is still the simplest: Holding babies skin-to-skin.
A striking new study published Monday in the journal Pediatrics shows just how profound and long-lasting the benefits of so-called “kangaroo care” can be.
Babies who received kangaroo care in the hospital after birth had fewer behavioral problems, as well as measurable changes in parts of the brain linked to learning 20 years down the road.
“This study shows that kangaroo mother care gives premature and low birth weight babies a better chance of thriving,” said Dr. Peter A. Singer, CEO of the Grand Challenges Canada (which provided support for the study) in a statement. “[It] saves brains and makes premature and low birthweight babies healthier and wealthier.”
The core of kangaroo care is direct, skin-to-skin contact. Babies lay on a caregiver’s chest, ideally for long stretches of time wearing nothing but a diaper and a blanket to stay warm. (It is often the mom, but that is not necessary.) Research has shown clear real-time benefits, including faster weight gain and improved oxygen saturation.
To assess potential long-term effects, researchers followed a group of young adults who were born in Colombia in the 1990s. They were either preterm (before 37 weeks) or with a low birthweight (less than 5 pounds, 8 ounces). Researchers were able to follow-up with 264 of the 716 patients who’d been enrolled in the original clinical trial, analyzing their health and social function ― as well as looking at the structure of their brains.
Compared to babies who were kept in incubators, the kangaroo care babies were generally found to be less aggressive, less impulsive and less hyperactive as young adults. They also had more volume in a part of the brain known as the caudate nucleus, which is thought to help with learning and memory.
And while the study cannot establish clear cause-and-effect, outside experts say the findings hold promise.
“The fact that they were able to study [this group] longterm and still see benefits is pretty amazing,” Dr. Amy Hair, a neonatologist and director of the neonatal nutrition program at Texas Children’s Hospital, told The Huffington Post.
“It’s like holistic care for the babies,” Hair continued. “They’re so fragile when they’re in the NICU ― some are the size of a Coke can ― and their parents are, understandably, afraid to touch them.”
In other words, the benefits include factors that can be hard to measure, like emotional connection.
Another benefit is the low cost. In the United States, one out of every 10 babies is born preterm, and low maternal income is one of the associated factors. Globally, there are 15 million preterm births every year. Promoting human touch is something that can be done by anyone, anywhere.
“It’s such a simple intervention that works in resource-limited areas where they don’t have as many isolettes,” Hair said. “So it not only helps in developed countries. It has benefits that span across resources.”