Premature babies whose mothers practiced “kangaroo care” had better mental health and fewer behavioral problems than other premature babies, according to a study published in the journal Pediatrics. Kangaroo care, sometimes called skin-to-skin contact, is an increasingly popular strategy for increasing breastfeeding success. The study suggests the benefits of skin-to-skin contact after birth may continue well beyond infancy and into young adulthood.
Kangaroo Care for Better Child Outcomes
The study—funded by Grand Challenges Canada’s “Saving Brains” program—followed 716 premature and low birth weight infants. Study participants were born in Colombia between 1993 and 1996. Prematurity and low birth weight are both correlated with negative outcomes in childhood, including a greater risk of cognitive and mental health issues.
Infants were randomly assigned to receive either standard care or kangaroo care. Kangaroo care involves extended skin-to-skin contact between a parent—usually the mother—and child. Babies receiving kangaroo care breastfeed on demand and are positioned shirtless on the parent’s bare chest.
Between 2012 and 2014, researchers followed up with 264 study participants who weighed 1,800 grams (about 4 pounds) at birth. Compared to infants who received standard care, infants whose parents practiced kangaroo care had better mental health and cognitive outcomes.
Benefits of Skin-to-Skin Contact After Birth
Children who received kangaroo care or skin-to-skin contact after birth:
- Had a lower mortality rate of 3.5%, compared to 7.7% in the control group.
- Had lower rates of school absenteeism and spent 23% more time in preschool.
- Had higher Intelligence Quotients (IQ). Babies in the most vulnerable group scored an average of 3.6% higher on IQ tests.
- Had wages that were nearly 53% higher than those in the control group.
- Scored 16% lower on measures of aggression and hyperactivity.
- Scored 20% lower on externalizing behaviors, which are associated with criminal behavior.
- Grew larger brains with more gray matter.
- Had healthier family lives and were more likely to grow up in homes with both parents.
Previous research has found benefits associated with kangaroo care. The World Health Organization recommends mothers and babies have at least one hour of uninterrupted skin-to-skin contact immediately following birth.
- Charpak, N., Tessier, R., Ruiz, J. G., Hernandez, J. T., Uriza, F., Villegas, J., . . . Maldonado, D. (2016). Twenty-year follow-up of kangaroo mother care versus traditional care. Pediatrics. doi:10.1542/peds.2016-2063
- Crenshaw, J. T. (2014). Healthy birth practice #6: Keep mother and baby together–it’s best for mother, baby, and breastfeeding. The Journal of Perinatal Education, 23(4), 211-217. doi:10.1891/1058-1243.23.4.211
- Kangaroo mother care helps premature babies thrive 20 years later — study. (2016, December 12). Retrieved from https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2016-12/gcc-kmc120516.php
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