A study published this month in the medical journal Pediatrics showed that the benefits of skin-to-skin and breastfeeding for premature infants extend into adulthood.
The original study compared premature infants who were randomly selected to receive "Kangaroo Mother Care" to those who received traditional incubator care until they were able to maintain their own body temperature.
Among other benefits, the mortality rate of the incubator group was more than double that of the skin-to-skin group.
This new study was a continuation of the original, with over 200 of the participants re-enrolled. Now adults, the study sought to understand how wide-reaching and long-lasting the effects of skin-to-skin and exclusive breastfeeding were.
Sponsored by the Canadian and Colombian governments, the researchers found that positive effects from Kangaroo Mother Care lasted into adulthood.
"This study indicates that Kangaroo Mother Care has significant, long-lasting social and behavioral protective effects 20 years after the intervention," said Dr. Nathalie Charpak from the Kangaroo Foundation in Bogotá.
What are the benefits? The young adults who got KMC have more sociable behavior and cognitive strength.
They are also more likely to be alive.
KMC babies grew to be more social, less aggressive, better able to express their feelings, earn 53% higher wages, and have better school attendance records.
They also experienced more dedicated, stimulating and protective parenting.
So which came first? The dedicated, stimulating and protective parenting, or the social and brain benefits for the children? In other words, is Kangaroo Mother Care helping babies grow better, or is it helping parents parent better? The answer is both.
"Perhaps doing the kangaroo mother care helped the parents become more attentive and bonded and nurturing parents - certainly this is a thought and hope," Dr. Lydia Furman, a pediatrics researcher at Case Western Reserve University and Rainbow Babies and Children's Hospital said in Reuters.
She asserts that "Biological responses would follow, not lead." It's a powerful injunction for the social and emotional attention we give our children.
The physiological benefits of skin-to-skin, however, are immediate. Dr. Nils Bergman has done skin-to-skin research as well. He found that babies on their mother's chest feel safe. They have mom's familiar heartbeat, voice, and smell. Babies that feel safe stabilize much faster, breastfeed easier, and bond with mom earlier. He said that even 28 weekers can breastfeed with this care. For babies born below 1500g, it resulted in a five-fold increase in survival.
Dr. Bergman says, "The mother is the incubator, and she does it much better, because her baby does not get stressed."
It's free and simple, it's physiologically safest, and it works.
Because it's virtually free, kangaroo care is especially important for families in places where access to neonatal intensive care and technology is unavailable. If there are no incubators, mothers must keep their babies skin-to-skin to keep them warm.
Dr. Charpak said, "We firmly believe that this is a powerful, efficient, scientifically based health care intervention that can be used in all settings, from those with very restricted to unrestricted access to health care."
Though breastfeeding and skin-to-skin contact are hardly a medical intervention, true Kangaroo Mother Care is an intervention because it deviates from normal policy. True KMC involves constant skin-to-skin contact (with technology if needed), breastfeeding, support and education for the mother, and early discharge from the hospital (with monitoring).
You don't need a special intervention to give your baby the benefits. Though it's especially important for the health and wellness of premature babies, skin-to-skin time and breastfeeding in the early days is helping children thrive into adulthood.
Image credit: Kala Bernier via Flickr CC