Kangaroo Mother Care: Researchers search for biological basis of its effectiveness

My niece just had a son. Despite the 110-degree summer heat, she has been holding him against her bare chest using a special newborn carrier because she knows kangaroo mother care is important. This bare skin, chest-to-chest contact has many demonstrated health benefits, including reduced mortality for low-birth-weight infants.

I recently spoke with neonatologist Vinod Bhutani, MD, about kangaroo mother care and his new pilot study — in partnership with Kari McCallie, MD, Susan Crowe, MD, and David K. Stevenson, MD — that is examining exactly how it works.

How is kangaroo mother care beneficial?

“The primary advantages of kangaroo mother care are keeping the baby warm and improving maternal-infant bonding, but there are additional benefits. When the baby is put on the mother’s breast, he is more likely to root and breastfeed. The baby also hears and feels the vibrations of the mother’s voice as she speaks or sings, and he feels the soothing rhythm of the mother’s heart that he’s used to hearing inside the womb. Finally, it improves the brain development of the baby on a long-term basis. We think skin-to-skin care is particularly important for premature babies, since their brains are not fully developed at birth. Fathers and other family members can participate too; many benefits of skin-to-skin care are not just limited to the mother.”

What barriers prevent effective kangaroo mother care?

“There are three main types of barriers: cultural ones, sick or premature babies and healthcare providers’ lack of knowledge or comfort level.

In most developed communities, the baby is separated from the mom for the first six hours after birth while the baby is being evaluated. Wearing clothes is also very important in western society, so direct skin-to-skin contact is not uniformly practiced — particularly in communities where babies are delivered at home or sent home soon after birth and mothers don’t have privacy.

In addition, sometimes babies are very sick so they are separated from their mother, placed in incubators and attached to medical devices. Studies have shown that a premature baby stabilizes better on his mother than in an incubator, but there are problems with implementation. Most hospitals in the U.S. and Western Europe discharge the mother after two days, so there are no places in the hospital for her to sleep with the baby and do kangaroo mother care. Often mothers also need to go back to work to save their maternity leave for when the baby stabilizes and comes home. And sometimes the baby is very sick and is attached to lots of technology, which can be intimidating and frightening to parents. Plus many healthcare providers aren’t convinced that kangaroo mother care is beneficial, particularly for premature or sick babies.”

What are you researching now?

“Our study stems from observations in horses made by our colleagues at the Univeristy of California, Davis led by veterinarian expert John Madigan, DVM. He found that foals exhibiting abnormal behavior shortly after birth had elevated fetal levels of neurosteroids, which was ameliorated by squeezing their chest to mimic the birth canal.

In our pilot study funded by the Gates Foundation, we looked at nine key “brain” hormones in 39 human babies, measuring hormone levels in the umbilical cord blood and 24 hours later in the baby’s blood. We studied the natural history of these neurosteroid hormones to see how they’re related to infants’ sex, mode of delivery (vaginal birth or cesarean section), maturity, and duration of skin-to-skin care.

We just finished collecting the data. Our preliminary analysis shows a significant decrease in most stress hormone levels over the first day. The decrease is more apparent in vaginal deliveries, underscoring the need to institute kangaroo mother care after a C-section. Once our analysis is complete, we hope to identify one or two key hormone levels that are the best index of birthing stress. In future work, we want to develop a test for these key hormones from the baby’s saliva to be used as a point-of-care test. A saliva test is something that a health provider could do to determine if the baby is stressed.

We need to understand the biological basis of kangaroo mother care to convince healthcare providers and policy makers of the importance of skin-to-skin contact. We need mothers and family members to be part of the healthcare team — they have a therapeutic role.”

This is a reposting of my Scope blog story, courtesy of Stanford School of Medicine.

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