Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

The (Non) Miracle of Skin-to-Skin Newborn Care

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September 27, 2012

Earlier this year, we wrote about a newborn named Sakshi. Sakshi was born too early—she was born “preterm”—but survived, in large part, because of around the clock skin-to-skin care provided by family members. This type of care is called “Kangaroo Care” and it can be life-saving.

Sakshi’s story is not a one-off miracle. There is a science behind it. Many cases of similar experiences have also been documented in the same community of Shivgarh, India, where it was introduced for the first time as a community practice for all newborns in 2003; but it’s also practiced in other parts of the world.

Kangaroo or “skin-to-skin” care, the act of holding your baby skin-to-skin is one of the most beautiful, natural, and healing experiences that a mother (or father) can cherish with her newborn baby. This simple, instinctive act can also be life-saving when it comes to babies who are born preterm.

Studies show that Kangaroo Care is one of the most effective ways to save the lives of preterm infants. It promotes breastfeeding, normalizes the baby’s temperature, accelerates weight gain, reduces the risk of infections, and improves survival.

Despite this conclusive evidence, wide-scale adoption of Kangaroo Care has been limited to select few hospitals. Its adoption and practice in community settings with scarce resources where it, along with breastfeeding, may be the only readily available, zero-cost, life-saving intervention, is dismally low.

Surprisingly, the scientific advancements in the understanding of Kangaroo Care have been largely to blame. A simple, natural, instinctive act of love has been made complex with the need for protocols and monitoring by trained personnel. It has become a “medical intervention” that needs to be included in complicated work plans and government policies, requiring extensive trainings for health care personnel, and detailed strategies of how to take this “procedure” to scale and measure the results.

While concerns of the medical and scientific communities around the safety of preterm babies are perhaps understandable and legitimate, we cannot deny the fact that Kangaroo Care is essentially a simple act of love. While there is no way to measure love, there is a scientifically proven way to show it.

Kangaroo care is the closest feeling that a mom can give to her newborn, suddenly thrust into an alien environment, of the warmth and comfort of being in her womb. The baby responds instinctively – it calms down, roots for the breast, and surrenders to its mother’s love.

And the Kangaroo Care position is the only position that truly empowers the newborn to access the 4 things it needs most of all: food, warmth, love, and security.

We have yet to hear of any adverse effects of Kangaroo Care, while thousands of babies have died in incubator fires alone. Is it even ethical to deny this practice to mothers and babies at this point?

It comes down to this: we must be able to free Kangaroo Care from the clasp of medical protocols and encourage its use in the communities where it’s needed most. All newborns, no matter where they are born, can benefit from Kangaroo care. But newborns who are born too early, in some of the poorest parts of the world, simply cannot wait.  

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