Premature and low-weight babies who get continuous skin-to-skin contact with their mothers while in the hospital have better survival rates, according to new research. The study, published online Dec. 22 in the journal Pediatrics, found that the practice known as kangaroo mother care (KMC) reduced the number of preemie and low-weight deaths by one-third when compared to conventional care.
The World Health Organization has long encouraged kangaroo care as a way to reduce infant mortality, particularly in developing countries. This type of infant care involves skin-to-skin contact between the newborn and mother, exclusive breastfeeding, early discharge from the hospital after delivery, and close follow-up care at home.
According to a Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) news release, 4 million babies worldwide die each year during their first year of life. Health technologies such as incubators can help improve outcomes in high-risk infants, but such equipment is not widely available in low- and middle-income countries where 99 percent of neonatal deaths occur.
Previous research has shown that when mothers hold their newborns against their chest, the act regulates the baby’s body temperature and improves such vital signs as heart rate and breathing. In addition, kangaroo care encourages breastfeeding.
To provide evidence that would help healthcare providers and policymakers implement KMC and improve neonatal survival, researchers from HSPH and Boston Children’s Hospital analyzed data from 124 studies published between 2000 and 2014.
The research team found that among newborns weighing less than 4.4 pounds who survived to receive KMC, there was a 36 percent reduction in deaths and a 47 percent lower risk of sepsis or major infection. The newborns who received KMC also had higher oxygen levels and head circumference growth, along with lower measures of pain. Findings also showed that KMC boosted the likelihood of breastfeeding after leaving the hospital by 50 percent.
Although most of the studies were done in low- and middle-income countries – where birth complications are more common that in the U.S. and other wealthy countries – KMC can also have an impact when it’s used along with advanced medical care, senior author Grace Chan, MD, MPH, PhD, an instructor at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and a faculty member at Boston Children’s Hospital, told HealthDay.
“The mechanisms through which kangaroo care is believed to work – for example, through stabilization of temperature and other vital signs, and increased breastfeeding – are likely to be the same across settings,” said Chan. “And that could lead to improvements in outcomes for infants in the U.S. neonatal intensive care units (NICUs) as well.”
However, Chan and her colleagues recognize that despite the fact that KMC is a low-cost intervention that could have a large impact on infant healthcare, there are obstacles to overcome before it will become a routine practice in the U.S. In an e-mail to MedPage Today, Chan wrote, “part of the challenge of incorporating KMC into routine neonatal care is making healthcare providers and parents aware of its benefits, as well as training them in proper implementation since many are not familiar with this practice, or may be hesitant to implement it in high-risk infants.”
Still, Chan told Reuters Health that she hoped “our study will provide a clear picture of the evidence on kangaroo mother care to help clinicians, families and policymakers understand the benefits of implementing this practice can have on newborn health.”