Kangaroo mother care

Kangaroo mother care gives you the chance to bond with your baby while also sustaining and boosting her development. By Ruth Rehbock


Kangaroo mother care (KMC) is a way of caring for premature babies through skin-to-skin contact with their moms. It’s recommended for premature or ill babies because they miss out on critical time in the womb where they would have constantly heard their mother’s soothing heartbeat and been encapsulated in her body’s warmth and safety while getting continuous nourishment and care. If a baby’s born too early it’s best if it can catch up on its development in a similar environment in order to develop as naturally as possible. KMC allows premature babies to continue growing while being fed on breast milk and soothed by Mom’s closeness, her heartbeat and the touch of her skin – the one critically important element of KMC.

It’s the skin-on-skin contact with Mom that stimulates your baby’s sucking reflex. Premature babies who can’t yet suck and swallow must be fed with expressed breast milk through a nasogastric tube. Surprisingly, many premature babies are able to suck. “I’ve personally seen a baby weighing only 1.3kg sucking quite strongly,” says Sister Sue Harvey, manager of NICU at Netcare Linkwood Hospital in Linksfield, Johannesburg. This is why many nurses in ICU encourage the use of dummies to help babies learn to suck. “The problem for really tiny premature babies is they need to learn how to coordinate sucking, swallowing and breathing, and can usually only do this between 34 and 36 weeks’ gestational age. This is why we feed tiny babies through a tube until they can breastfeed successfully on their own.”

However, according to Dr Nils Bergman, the doctor who introduced KMC into South Africa in 1995, not all premature babies need to be fed using a tube. “Although it’s often believed that babies can only suck from 35 weeks, we’ve seen babies born at 28 weeks who can breastfeed exclusively, but only if they’re never separated from their mothers.”

Another vital element of successful KMC is that babies must be stable and continuously monitored. In fact, babies can still be kangarooed while on ventilators or continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machines, another form of respiratory support. The bedside nurse is always nearby and ready to assist parents, and screens are provided for privacy.

Benefits of Kangaroo Mother Care

  • It isn’t only preterm babies who can benefit from Kangaroo mother care (KMC). Dr Nils Bergman believes skin-to-skin contact is the normal biological way in which human beings ought to care for their babies, and there’s research to back up what he says. “More than 300 trials or tests have shown how skin-to-skin contact works better for low birth weight babies than incubators do. Incubators are still used because in western culture they’re still thought of as the ‘normal’ route to caring for premature babies.”
  • “Being in skin-to-skin contact with a parent is recommended under any circumstance, except when specific problems such as illness or major surgery make it impossible,” Dr Bergman says.
  • Skin-to-skin contact is also vital for premature babies’ growth and development because it promotes “self-attachment” – the inherent ability for a baby to attach to a breast and breastfeed spontaneously, which usually occurs within an hour of being left undisturbed on its mother’s chest. This means even tiny babies can often breastfeed and get optimal nutrition.
  • “When there is skin-on-skin contact between a mom and her premature baby it’s highly unusual – unless something else goes wrong for mother and baby – for a mom to be unable to feed her baby in this way. 95% of babies are able to breastfeed easily if circumstances are as they should be,” Dr Bergman explains.
  • Separating a baby from its mom causes a defensive reaction in the baby – one that prevents the baby from breastfeeding successfully, which Dr Bergman says, holds true even for older babies. “The problem with babies in incubators is that they’re separated from Mom, losing the opportunity to try and feed at the breast. You have to allow these babies this contact for the feeding reflex to kick in.”
  • Through contact with Mom, a premature infant’s oxygen intake, immunity, heart rate and its digestive processes, are greatly improved. In fact, skin-on-skin contact has been used to successfully treat respiratory distress. This type of contact, together with feeding exclusively at the breast (or getting breast milk through a tube) also prevents babies from catching potentially life-threatening infections.

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