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Busting Myths: Taking Kangaroo Mother Care to the Next Level

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January 24, 2014

What if there was a low-cost, low-tech, and relatively simple way to save hundreds of thousands of newborn lives around the world? Would you be surprised if this method was not being used widely? Kangaroo Mother Care (KMC), a practice of holding a newborn baby skin-to-skin, was introduced over three decades ago in Bogotá Colombia as an alternative for incubator care for preterm babies. This practice has been proven to meet a baby’s needs for warmth, and promote breastfeeding, protection from infections and bonding. New research is also beginning to show long-lasting neurodevelopmental benefits, such as cognition. However, thirty-five years after its introduction, KMC is still a practice that is sputtering through even the introductory phase (globally less than one percent use), in part because of a widely accepted myth that it is only a hospital-based, medical intervention for premature babies. A related myth is that KMC is a “poor-woman’s” intervention that is simply a poor substitute for more desirable high-tech, costly care like the incubator care that is the norm for preterm babies in most rich countries.

It is time to debunk and move past these myths.

We have evidence of the effectiveness of KMC for premature babies, so why wouldn’t we want to promote a natural, deeply-rooted behavior of a mother holding her baby close for all mothers and their newborns and learn to build on that practice to promote skin-to-skin contact, exclusive breastfeeding and warmth for all newborn babies? Its benefits for preterm babies in facilities have been demonstrated in various trials across high, middle and low-income countries. To be translated into lasting impact, however, our charge is that it must be promoted as the norm -- as an activity that all mothers can do for their babies, across facilities and communities, and in poor and rich countries alike. That will benefit all newborns, while contributing to the survival of those most at risk.

 Kangaroo Mother Care has been proven to meet a baby’s needs for warmth, and promote breastfeeding, protection from infections and bonding.

There is much yet to learn about how to implement KMC across the continuum of care, placing the mother and her baby at the core through a user-centered approach. We must look at how to bridge the facility-community divide. Most women move in and out of facilities to the home, so how do we ensure that no matter where a woman gives birth or spends her time after childbirth, she learns about the benefits of KMC? 

There is  no a priori reason to think that the physiological principles and benefits of warmth and promotion of breastfeeding that have been proven effective among premature babies provided KMC in facilities, would change by crossing the threshold of a building or moving from one place to another.

It is time to act.

In order to see KMC practiced globally it will be essential that parents, local communities, civil society and policy-makers in all countries make this agenda their own. Policy-makers and program managers must prioritize and put in place supportive policies, allocate funds, integrate KMC into existing programs and measure progress.

To scale up, we need to answer the question:  how do we overcome the barriers to widespread KMC uptake? Let’s focus our efforts on ensuring that countries develop the know-how and country plans for how to engage mothers in regions that need it most. Most importantly, we need to challenge local and global myths about KMC as a method of care for those who can’t afford better care for their preterm babies.  Every mother, irrespective of where she lives and what resources she has at her disposal, should have the opportunity to bond, protect, and optimize the chances for her newborn to live a healthy and productive life. 

There are many myths that block progress for the poor. But we all have the chance to create a world where extreme poverty is the exception rather than the rule, and where all children have the same chance to thrive, no matter where they’re born. Read the 2014 Gates Foundation Annual Letter, co-authored by Bill and Melinda Gates to find out more and see how you can get involved. #StoptheMyth

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