Pediatrics; Your Pregnancy Matters

Kangaroo care: Health benefits for newborns and parents

Pediatrics; Your Pregnancy Matters

Baby on mother's chest skin-to-skin contact
Early, prolonged skin-to-skin contact between a newborn and its parents has powerful health benefits, helping babies grow stronger and parents build confidence.

For decades, kangaroo care – sessions of skin-to-skin contact between newborns and parents – has been shown to improve the physical and neurological health of premature babies. The cozy sleep and added warmth of the parent helps regulate the baby’s body temperature and allows them to conserve energy for weight gain and brain development.

Developed in Bogota, Colombia, in the 1970s, kangaroo care initiated as soon as possible after birth provided dramatic benefits for preterm babies, who are at increased risk of developmental complications and death.

Today, approximately 10% of births in the U.S. occur before 37 weeks’ gestation – increasing the importance of kangaroo care.

A recent study showed that preemies who received 60- or 120-minute kangaroo care sessions demonstrated improvements in their attention, response to external stimulus, reflexes, and quality of movements. Additional skin-to-skin benefits for babies include:

  • Better and more sleep
  • Earlier discharge from the hospital
  • Faster weight gain
  • Regular breathing patterns
  • Reduced stress, as measured by cortisol levels
  • Stabilized heart rate

UT Southwestern’s William P. Clements Jr. University Hospital found that after we increased kangaroo care sessions from 60 to 90 minutes as part of a bundle of initiatives to reduce neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), fewer babies needed to be admitted for low blood sugar.

Research has shown parents also benefit from kangaroo care in several ways, including:

  • Improved bonding with the new baby
  • Increased breast milk production
  • More confidence in caring for the baby
  • Potential 25% reduced risk of moderate-to-severe postpartum depression

Kangaroo care, named for the way a mother kangaroo holds her baby in her pouch, can also be very good for full-term babies and their parents. Skin-to-skin contact improves the entire family’s chances of a healthy start in life.

Your first kangaroo care session

As soon as possible after delivery, a healthy term baby will be placed naked on the mother’s chest and covered with a blanket. The parent can sit reclined or stand if a sling or wrap is available. If you delivered via C-section, our providers will help you find a comfortable and sustainable position to hold the baby.

For a preterm infant who requires NICU care, the ability to kangaroo may be delayed until the infant is clinically ready. In the NICU, we only offer kangaroo care with the parent in a recliner, not standing up.

A blanket is placed over you and the baby for warmth, and we’ll encourage you to snuggle for 60-120 minutes at least once a day while the baby is in the hospital and after they go home.

Sometimes, the biggest struggle with initiating kangaroo care is fending off well-meaning loved ones who want to meet the new baby. We will help you explain to grandparents and friends why it’s important that they be patient for their turn to hold the little one.

We also work to help new parents understand the benefits of skin-to-skin contact. This spring, Children’s Health Dallas hosted a two-week “Kangaroo-A-Thon” event, during which 29 families logged more than 82 hours of kangaroo care.

Kangaroo care for babies with complex needs

Parents of preemies – especially those who are connected to monitors or breathing machines – may feel anxious about holding and moving the baby. Our NICU nurses will guide you in safely maneuvering to participate in kangaroo care. Parents often get a confidence boost from the experience, preparing them for full-time care of their baby.

When it comes to handling a preemie or newborn, keep these important tips in mind:

  • Mind the soft spots: The bones of newborns' skulls are not fully fused, so be careful of pressure on the top or back of the baby's head. The soft spots will firm up a few months after delivery.
  • Wash your hands: A baby's immune system is still developing and it takes time for them to build defenses against germs. Ask visitors to wash their hands before they hold the baby, too.
  • Resist the urge to bounce: Bouncing a newborn on your shoulder can cause anxiety, which will only lead to more crying. Instead, hold baby like a football and gently sway them back and forth. This movement is comforting because it's similar to motion in the womb.

Related reading: 10 tips for handling and holding a newborn

With tenderness, experience, and a little guidance, parents typically adapt quickly to kangaroo care. It gives us great joy to see these bonding moments lead to healthy development for premature and full-term babies.

To talk with an Ob/Gyn, call 214-645-8300 or request an appointment online.