What is kangaroo care?

Kangaroo care is a method of holding a baby that involves skin-to-skin contact. The baby, who is naked except for a diaper and a piece of cloth covering his or her back (either a receiving blanket or the parent's clothing), is placed in an upright position against a parent's bare chest. This snuggling of the infant inside the pouch of their parent's shirt, much like a kangaroo's pouch, led to the creation of the term "kangaroo care."

How did kangaroo care come about?

Kangaroo care came about as a response to the high death rate in preterm babies seen in Bogotá, Colombia, in the late 1970s. There, the death rate for premature infants was 70 percent. The babies were dying of infections, respiratory problems, and simply due to lack of attention. Researchers found that babies who were held close to their mothers' bodies for large portions of the day not only survived, but thrived.

In the United States, hospitals that encourage kangaroo care typically have their mothers or fathers provide skin-to-skin contact with their preterm babies for several hours each day. However, skin-to-skin contact is encouraged for all babies, including term babies.

Why does kangaroo care work?

The benefits of kangaroo care listed above have all been demonstrated in research studies. In fact, studies have found that skin-to-skin holding stabilizes heart and respiratory rates, improves oxygen saturation rates, better regulates an infant's body temperature, and conserves a baby's calories.

When a mother is kangarooing, the infant typically snuggles into the breast and falls asleep within a few minutes. The breasts themselves have been shown to change in temperature to accommodate a baby body's changing temperature needs. In other words, the breast can increase in temperature when the infant's body is cool and can decrease in temperature as the baby is warmed.

The extra sleep that the infant gets snuggling with mom and the assistance in regulating body temperature helps the baby conserve energy and redirects calorie expenditures toward growth and weight gain. Being positioned on mom also helps to stabilize the infant's respiratory and heart rates. Finally, research has also shown that kangaroo care results in positive effects on brain development.