Next Wednesday is Kangaroo Care Awareness Day, Let's Get Cuddling!

08 May 2019

Next Wednesday is Kangaroo Care Awareness Day, Let's Get Cuddling!

Kangaroo Care Awareness Day is an annual event which takes place on 15th May, to highlight the importance and benefits of touch for babies and their parents. Kangaroo Care, a process also known as skin-to-skin, is where babies are held by their parents across their bare chest, so that the skin is touching. This contact is vital for babies’ development, Unicef describe it’s importance here:

"It helps the baby to adjust to life outside the womb and is highly important for supporting mothers to initiate breastfeeding and to develop a close, loving relationship with their baby."

Kangaroo care can be especially beneficial for families with a baby who has been born prematurely or is poorly and receiving care in the neonatal unit, where they can be monitored and given specialist care where appropriate. Neonatal teams work hard to ensure that parents can engage in skin-to-skin as soon as possible after birth, as this simple act can have a big impact on both baby and parents during this stressful time. Here are just some of the reasons why kangaroo care is so important:

1. Helps to promote bonding
When a baby is being cared for by medical staff, parents can sometimes feel as though they cannot contribute to their babies' care, but engaging in skin-to-skin contact can help to remind and reassure them just how important they are to their baby. The act of holding their baby is comforting and gives mums and dads the opportunity to get to know their baby and to talk, read, or sing to their child as they would do if they were at home, thereby creating a sense of normalcy in an environment that is anything but normal.

The stresses of a neonatal stay can take their toll emotionally on mum and dad, Julia Petty wrote about the positive effect kangaroo care can have on the bonding process between a mother and child - we’ll get to dad a little later on:

"Skin-to-skin contact between the baby and the body or chest of the parent stimulates the release of the hormone oxytocin. This plays a crucial role in a mother’s bonding behaviour, in turn positively affecting her mood and interactions with the baby."

2. Aids babies' brain development
Of the five senses, touch is one of the first to develop and it is how a baby first learns about the world. Dr. Nathalie Maitre of Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, the author of a study which examined the effects of touch and babies’ brain development, said that:

"Our findings add to our understanding that more exposure to these types of supportive touch (skin-to-skin contact) can actually impact how the brain processes touch, a sense necessary for learning and social-emotional connections."

This contact also helps babies in the unit to develop better sleeping habits and good quality sleep is important for their growth and development. Some NICUs even recruit volunteer baby cuddlers to help ensure this supportive touch is maintained even when parents cannot be in the unit.

3. It can help to reduce pain
Premature or poorly babies in the neonatal unit can sometimes undergo a number of tests, treatments and/or operations, so finding something to help minimise the pain experienced by these fragile infants is a priority. A Cochrane review, a study that looked at the effects of skin-to-skin contact, found that:

"Kangaroo care appears to reduce the pain response to, and recovery from, these frequent procedures, although few studies could be combined to provide strong evidence. As far as it has been reported, skin‐to‐skin care is safe. Although it appears that skin‐to‐skin care is effective, the size of the benefit remains uncertain."

A recent study has found that there is another form of touch, that parents can use when holding their baby, which has been proven to have an effect on helping to reduce pain, the study found that:

"Gently stroking a baby reduces activity in their brain associated with painful experiences."

4. Assists the transition to breastfeeding
When babies are cared for in the neonatal unit they are often fed their mother’s milk (or donor milk) via a feeding tube before they later move on to the breast or bottle. Gillian Bowker, Neonatal Infant Feeding Adviser for the NHS Glasgow and Greater Clyde, recorded a series of videos for us in support of World Breastfeeding Week last August and in one of these videos, she spoke about the process of transitioning to breastfeeding, and how skin-to-skin contact could help. Gillian said:

"One of the best things that you can do for your baby is nurse your baby in lots of skin contact as you do, for as many hours a day as you’re able to have your baby in skin contact. It allows him to practice, it allows him to smell that smell that’s familiar because he’s near to your breast, he can smell your breastmilk and it gives him something to focus on…"

5. It's an important role for Dad
Dads can sometimes feel neglected in the days following a new arrival, with the focus being on a poorly baby and sometimes a poorly mum, they can feel as though they don’t have a role to play. With baby in the hospital, dad can feel even more unsure of his role and kangaroo care is a wonderful way for dad to play his part and have some precious one-to-one time with his new baby.

A study has also highlighted how vital it is for dads to practice kangaroo care in those early days and how it has benefits later down the line. The study focused on how dads' biology around the birth of their children relates to their parenting later on, finding that:

"Dads whose cortisol levels were elevated while they held their newborns on the day of their birth - either skin-to-skin or clothed - were more likely to be involved with indirect care and play with their infants in the first months of their lives ... studies like this give us an understanding of the value of having the dad present at birth and engaging with the baby."

While we're sharing the love for dads and those early days with their babies, take a look at these photos of dads’ first moments with their newborns, where many are practicing kangaroo care.

The Kangaroo Care Challenge
So there you have it, these are just some of the reasons why skin-to-skin is so beneficial. NICU teams know this and many are busy this very moment helping to support parents to engage in skin-to-skin contact for as long as possible as part of the Sunnybrook Kangaroo Care Challenge. The challenge, which runs from May 1 to May 15, involves units working to raise awareness of the importance of kangaroo care, by competing (in the friendliest of ways!) to ensure as many babies as possible have as much cuddle time as possible.

Last year’s Kangaroo-a-thon winners in the Level 2 NICU category were Exeter NNU, with 5 hours of baby holding per baby each day … who will win this year? Learn more here.