Curious Parents

How Kangaroo Mother Care Keeps Preemies Close and Survival Rates High

Giving birth prematurely is a harrowing time for a family. Too small and weak to survive on its own, the newborn is often whisked away to an infant ICU to be kept sealed away from the world in an incubator, sometimes without a single touch from mom. But there's a way to help preemies thrive while strengthening the mother-child bond at the same time. It's called Kangaroo Mother Care, or KMC, and it's been a godsend for maternity medicine.

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Inspired By Nature

In 1978, Colombian pediatrician Edgar Rey faced a problem. The Instituto Materno Infantil (Mother and Child Hospital) in a low-income area of Bogotá was the country's largest neonatal unit at the time, and overcrowding was rampant. Doctors were responsible for delivering 30,000 babies a year, and many infants born prematurely had to share incubators, leading to cross-infection and skyrocketing death rates. While trying to find a solution, Rey stumbled on information about the kangaroo. We all know kangaroos carry their young in a pouch, but the reasons for it are fascinating: at birth, the baby is small enough to sit on the tip of your finger. Inside the pouch, it nurses while absorbing warmth from its mother's skin. Over a period of 3–15 months it grows until it's roughly a quarter of its mother's weight, and only then is it ready to emerge into the world.

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Rey went back to the institute and trained mothers of premature babies to carry them sort of like a kangaroo mother would: directly against their skin, nestled beneath their clothing. He taught them how to keep them upright with their airways clear, along with how to breastfeed them, then sent them home as soon as it was wise to do so. The change was dramatic: deaths, infections, and overcrowding all fell immediately.

Baby skin-to-skin with mother.

A Quick Fix Becomes Hard Research

Another pediatrician at the institute named Nathalie Charpak noticed the dramatic results and immediately began putting the wheels in motion for a rigorous scientific study of the method. She did her first small study in 1989 showing that infant survival with KMC was the same as with traditional care, and published a larger randomized trial in 1997 that demonstrated KMC infants had shorter hospital stays and lower rates of infection. Research since has only strengthened the case.

Related: Why Curing These Infants' Leukemia Could Mean A Cure For Thousands More

According to Mosaic, there are now more than 1,600 studies showing the impressive benefits of Kangaroo Mother Care. Studies show that KMC babies bond better with their parents, for example. Heart and respiratory rates, sleeping, even cognitive development is improved. It also benefits mothers, who experience less postpartum depression. Thanks in large part to the research of Charpak and others, KMC is no longer a quick fix in Colombia—it's the go-to solution. All Colombian women with premature or low-weight babies are referred to KMC experts.

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Written by Curiosity Staff February 16, 2017