Benefits of Kangaroo Care for Preemies
After a premature birth, it’s natural for parents to feel overwhelmed. Fortunately, there are some things both moms and dads can do to feel a little more in control, and to help their baby get stronger — including practicing kangaroo care. We’ll walk you through what kangaroo care is, its benefits, and how a little (or a lot of) skin-to-skin contact each day can help your preemie grow and develop, and maybe even go home sooner.
What Is Kangaroo Care for Premature Babies?
You’ll have lots of questions following the premature birth of your baby, and you might be wondering whether you can enjoy skin-to-skin contact with your little one. In fact, not only is it helpful for full term babies, but it is also considered especially useful for preemies.
Kangaroo care is simply holding your baby, who is wearing only a diaper, against your bare chest. You can cover his back within a blanket or with one of your own pieces of clothing, giving him the feeling that he’s safely in mom’s (or dad’s) “pouch.” It’s as if the baby’s in a kangaroo pouch — hence the term.
The importance of skin-to-skin contact has been more widely known since the 1970s, when it was found that preemies had a much better chance of survival if they spent a large portion of the day between their mom’s breasts. Today, we know that babies can benefit from skin-to-skin contact with dads, as well.
Kangaroo Care Benefits for Preemies
There are many benefits of skin-to-skin contact for preemies and their parents. Here are some of the better-known advantages this practice offers for premature babies:
Helps regulate the baby’s heart rate, breathing, and body temperature. For example, the mom’s breasts change in temperature to suit her baby’s needs. If the baby is a little warm, her breasts will become cooler to help cool the baby down, and vice versa. The close contact will also intuitively teach the baby to regulate his heart rate and breathing to mom’s or dad’s.
Improves oxygen circulation. In turn, deeper, more regulated breathing will increase the rate of oxygen being delivered to the baby’s organs and tissues, which promotes growth and development of his organs, and helps him gain weight.
Helps calm the baby. Your preemie will recognize the heartbeat and voice of mom from his time in the womb. That’s why being pressed against mom’s chest helps him feel more secure.
Better sleep. Preemies who get plenty of kangaroo care have more high quality, deep sleep, allowing them to grow, develop, and gain weight faster.
Promotes brain development. More restful sleep, less stress, and better oxygen circulation to the preemie’s organs and body tissue all contribute to healthy brain development.
Boosts immune system. Contact with your skin can help expose the baby to healthy bacteria, boosting his immune system.
Helps the baby put on weight. As the preemie begins to rely on the parent for temperature regulation, he uses fewer calories for keeping warm. Skin-to-skin contact also promotes his physical development, leading to weight gain.
Less crying. As the baby rests better and stays calmer for longer, he’ll cry less and feel less distress.
Helps bonding. He’ll also hear mom or dad’s breathing, and smell his parent’s skin, helping parent-baby bonding.
Helps promote breastfeeding. Babies who are held close to mom’s breasts are more likely to show an inclination for breastfeeding. This closeness can even help improve mom's breast milk production.
Overall, this kind of care can help reduce some of the common problems preemies face as well as help improve the chances of an earlier discharge from hospital.
For parents, it can help alleviate some of their worry by making them feel more closely bonded with their baby. It also gives mom and dad confidence that they are doing everything they can to help their little one get stronger. Research indicates that this bonding time may also help reduce the risk of postpartum depression.
How to Safely Practice Kangaroo Care
Ask the NICU staff about when to begin kangaroo care. Your medical team will be able to tell you about your hospital’s post-birth policy. Some will want you to wait until your baby’s health is stable, while others will encourage skin-to-skin contact right after birth. If possible, discuss your preferences with your doctors before labor, so you won’t feel disappointed if your baby isn’t placed on your chest right away. A hospital’s policy may vary based on whether it’s a vaginal birth or a cesarean birth, as well.
Here are the steps to follow for kangaroo care:
Once you’re given the all clear and are ready to safely practice kangaroo care, wear a shirt that can open at the front. Moms, remove your bra as well. Alternatively, there are even special kangaroo care shirts, allowing your baby to be placed down the front and held tightly against your chest.
Place your naked baby on your bare chest. He can still have his diaper and hat on. Remember, preemie diapers are specially designed to fit premature babies’ weight and size.
You can drape a blanket or one of your tops across your baby’s back to make sure he doesn't get cold. Just make sure his face is still visible.
It’s preferable to sit in a quiet, dimly lit room, so you can both relax. Let your baby rest during this time, without play or interruptions.
Hold your baby like this for at least one hour a day, for at least four hours per week. However, if your baby enjoys it, and if your physicians also recommend it, you’re welcome to hold your baby for much longer. In most cases, the more the better.
You can even enjoy skin-on-skin contact while bottle feeding or breastfeeding your preemie. Many dads especially enjoy the benefits of skin-to-skin contact while bottle feeding, for example.
NICU staff will be able to provide moms and dads one-on-one guidance to make sure this shared time is comfortable and enjoyable.
What to Watch Out for With Skin-to-Skin Contact for Preemies
You might feel nervous about holding your baby for the first time, particularly if he’s connected to tubes and looks small and fragile. And when you begin skin-to-skin contact, you might be fearful that you’ll hurt your baby by holding him close. Don't worry — you won’t. Hospital staff will be able to help position your baby on your chest, so that any tubes or wires are moved to a comfortable spot. It can help to place the baby on a blanket, lean gently over your baby, wriggle your hand under the blanket, and support his back and head as you lift him up onto your chest.
To help make kangaroo care even easier for premature babies, there are special clothes for preemies that are simple to open at the front so that your baby can be placed on your bare chest. Make sure you keep your baby in an upright position, with his breathing way clear.
With a little practice, you’ll be confident in practicing kangaroo care, sure in the knowledge that you’re helping your preemie get stronger every day.
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