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Kangaroo Care? What can we learn from this lovely animal?

Immediately after pushing out the newborn baby through the birth canal, even before the umbilical cord is snipped and with the amniotic fluid still glistening, the midwife places the child on the naked bosom of the mother.

The mother is totally overwhelmed physically, having just pushed so hard to get the child out, and emotionally too, as she grapples with the fact that the child is THE major responsibility for her for the rest of her natural life.

As emotions after emotions race through the mother’s mind, the newborn rests contentedly, skin to skin, bosom to bosom. The child knows that she’s safe and her mother will love her unconditionally for the mother’s natural life, and she’s comforted by that.

That skin-to-skin bonding is the first physical contact that the mother and the newborn experience together. For humans, there is nowhere in the world that this initial bonding is as powerful physiologically and psychologically. Nothing can replace this bonding.

With this beautiful bonding, the child will grow up reassured, confident, independent and most importantly, loved. The mother knows hopefully her child will be too, even as she thinks about her lifelong responsibility and whether she can fulfil that responsibility adequately.

This beatific bonding of mother and child is the beginning of the miracle of bringing forth a human to life and to live. It is an instinctive, natural way mammals behave in birthing, and we humans are no stranger to it.

Back in 1978, in Bogotá, capital of Colombia, the largest neonatal hospital in Colombia, Instituto Materno Infantil, was so crowded with 30,000 babies born yearly that premature babies were dying of infections, breathing problems and just lack of attention due to shortage of incubators. Young impoverished mothers of premature babies even abandoned them as it was just easier to go.

Instituto Materno Infantil’s Professor of Neonatology, Dr Edgar Rey Sanabria was desperate. He tried to solve the hospital’s problem of dying premature babies. Then he came across a paper on the kangaroo’s physiology – at birth kangaroos were bald and just the size of a peanut, similar to premature babies. Kangaroo mothers carry their newborns in their pouches, and the newborns get thermal regulation from the skin-to-skin contact as they are bald. Instinctively, these newborns latch onto the mothers’ nipple and hang on to it till they grow to a quarter of their mothers’ weight and then leave the pouch.

Professor Sanabria was inspired. Together with his colleague, Dr Hector Martinez, they placed premature babies on their mothers’ bare bosoms immediately after childbirth and for most of the day. They also taught the mothers breastfeeding and as soon as their babies latch on and suckle, they discharged the mothers and babies. These babies survived and even thrived! Very quickly, the overcrowding lessened, premature babies’ death rate dropped, and abandoned babies’ numbers fell. Professor Sanabria named this skin-to-skin bonding as the ‘Kangaroo Mother Method’.

An early proponent, Professor Gene Cranston Anderson brought this to the US and coined it ‘kangaroo care’. Then in 1979, M E Thomson was the first to use ‘skin-to-skin’ in his research publication, and since then this term is used universally and interchangeably with ‘kangaroo care’. Since 2011, every May 15th, there’s even an International Kangaroo Care Awareness Day!

Now, skin-to-skin after childbirth is practised globally for both premature and full-term newborns. Doing it keeps your baby’s heart rate stable, makes breathing more regular and deeper to let oxygen feed the baby’s organs and tissues. Skin-to-skin babies sleep more, cry less, breastfeed better, gain weight faster and positively impact their brain development too!

For mothers, they feel closer to their babies, produce more breastmilk and increase the mothers’ confidence in caring for their babies. Fathers too can do skin-to-skin with newborns as the babies will feel the same effects with fathers, except breastfeeding.

The literal skin-to-skin contact binds mother and child in an intrinsic bond that’s irreplaceable. And over 40 years since it started in Colombia, many of these kangaroo care children are now well-balanced and well-placed adults thriving in the world. This fact has been empirically proven by recalling some from the initial cohort of babies in Colombia and doing tests and measurements over them, with startling results inspiring the neonatal community as well as parents decisively.

Today, many neonatal units in hospitals and birthing centers all over the world practise skin-to-skin bonding immediately after childbirth and encourage mothers to do so for the first three months of their newborn babies. It is even recommended by the World Health Organization, as well as the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists, and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

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