Premature babies experience long-term benefits from skin-to-skin contact with their mothers for a short time every day. (photo from israel21c.org)
A new Israeli study reveals that “kangaroo care” for premature babies has life-long effects on neurological and psychological development. Conducted by Dr. Ruth Feldman – a professor in the department of psychology and in the Brain Research Centre at Bar-Ilan University and adjunct professor at the Child Study Centre at Yale – the study shows that skin-to-skin contact between mother and newborn improves brain functioning later in life.
The concept of “kangaroo care” (named for the way that this marsupial carries her unformed offspring in her pouch) is not new. Introduced by neonatologist Edgar Rey Sanabria in 1978 in Bogota, Colombia – where access to incubators was limited – it is a method of using maternal body heat to prevent hypothermia in preemies. That it proved effective in keeping infants warm made sense, but Feldman and her research team set out to examine whether it had a measurable influence.
They began performing a double-blind longitudinal study in 1996 and 1998, looking at one group of 73 premature babies in a neonatal unit receiving standard incubator care, and another set of 73 whose mothers provided skin-to-skin contact for one hour a day for two weeks in a row. The parents in the control group were not aware of the kangaroo-care study, but were offered ongoing psychological and medical care for their babies.
At seven intervals over the course of the next decade, all 146 of these children were tested with brain scans. Today, they are 16 to 18 years old.
“What we found was that the children in the kangaroo-care group had better cognitive skills, sleep patterns and a higher functioning autonomic nervous system, better able to cope with stress,” Feldman said. “And their mothers were more sensitive parents.”