What Is Kangaroo Care?

newborn baby skin to skin with caregiver

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Walk into any birthing preparation classroom and you're bound to hear the terms "kangaroo care" or "skin-to-skin contact." These phrases are often used interchangeably, as they both involve placing a newborn baby directly on a parent or caregiver's bare chest.

In addition to being a great bonding technique in those early days following birth, kangaroo care comes with a plethora of health benefits for newborn babies—especially if your infant is preterm. From improving oxygen rates to helping babies maintain their body temperature, there are several reasons to cozy up to your new infant and put this method into practice.

Ahead, we'll break down exactly what kangaroo care is, where it originated, and how you can implement it yourself—even if you aren't able to hold your baby directly after birth.

How Experts Define Kangaroo Care

Kangaroo care is the act of placing an undressed newborn baby skin-to-skin on an adult caregiver’s bare chest. This evidence-based practice is recommended for premature infants or low birth weight infants. Both parents and alternative caregivers can all participate in and provide kangaroo care.

The World Health Organization goes on to further define kangaroo care as including skin-to-skin contact that is “early, continuous, and prolonged”; starts in the hospital and continues after discharge to home, includes exclusive breastfeeding (ideally), and leads to early discharge. However, not all of these factors must be met to receive the benefits of kangaroo care.

Skin-to-skin contact may be provided for an hour a day or up to 24-hours a day, depending on circumstance, the facility, the caregivers availability, and the newborn’s medical stability.

The History of Kangaroo Care

Kangaroo care was first invented by doctors Edgar Rey and Hector Martinez, while working in a hospital in Bogota, Columbia.

The maternity ward of their hospital was overflowing with premature and low birth weight babies. Dr. Edgar Rey and Hector Martinez had a problem: there were not enough incubators for every premature infant requiring care.

They began to wonder if, once the baby was stable enough, there might be another way to keep the infant's temperature regulated while they were still under the hospital's care. They came up with the idea of placing stable infants onto the chests of their mothers, thinking that the parents' skin would be able to keep the babies warm.

The research found that not only did kangaroo care keep these babies stable, but in some ways, the babies who received kangaroo care did better overall when compared to the infants who stayed in the incubators all day. Kangaroo care babies grew faster, had improved breastfeeding success, and had lower rates of infection. The concept of kangaroo care was born.

Why Is Kangaroo Care Important?

Kangaroo care has been found to improve health outcomes for premature and low birth weight infants, promote bonding, and improve wellbeing in caregivers themselves.

Various studies have shown that kangaroo care may...

  • Lower mortality rates (in other words, improve survival rates)
  • Reduce rates of sepsis, a life-threatening infection
  • Improve the success and duration of breastfeeding
  • Speed up weight gain in low birth weight babies
  • Improve head circumference growth
  • Help babies maintain their body temperature
  • Improve heart and respiratory rates
  • Improve oxygenation
  • Lower rates of hypoglycemia (low blood sugar)
  • Lower cortisol levels, a stress hormone

These are the potential benefits during infancy, but long-term studies have found that the benefits of kangaroo care may go even beyond babyhood.

A study published in the medical journal Pediatrics compared adults who were once low birth weight babies cared for exclusively in incubators, and those who received kangaroo care. They found, twenty years later, that the babies who received kangaroo care had higher IQ rates and had fewer "socially deviant" behaviors as young adults. The study also found that a part of the brain known as the left caudate nucleus was larger in those who received kangaroo care as infants. Damage to the caudate nucleus is associated with hyperactivity and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Kangaroo care isn’t just for the baby. Kangaroo care has been found to help mothers recover emotionally from the trauma of a premature birth, and it can help caregivers bond with their baby.

“Many studies have shown benefit to both the baby and the parent when skin-to-skin or kangaroo care is done regularly,” explains Melinda Elliott, MD, clinical neonatologist and chief medical officer for Prolacta Bioscience in Maryland. “Some NICUs in other countries even do it around the clock, with parents sharing the time with the baby."

How to Provide Kangaroo Care

In the simplest of terms, kangaroo care includes having your baby placed directly skin-to-skin on your bare chest. You may be sitting in a recliner, leaning back, or even lying on a bed with the baby lying on top of you. The baby is usually prone, or stomach down, with their face turned to the side. The baby may or may not be wearing a diaper, and sometimes, a little hat is used to keep their head warm.

A blanket is placed over the baby, covering both of you. Your own body heat, trapped by the blanket, helps your baby maintain their body temperature. Your body essentially becomes your baby’s incubator!

While lying on your chest, your baby can hear and feel your heart beating, your chest rising and falling with each breath, and your voice. These familiar sounds from the womb can provide reassurance and comfort to the newborn.

If your baby is in the NICU, the nursing staff will be happy to help you. "Kangaroo care is highly encouraged for all medically stable neonates,” explains Gillian Marcell, BSN, RN, a NICU nurse in Phoenix, AZ.

“A parent really can’t do it ‘wrong’ as long as there is support from the NICU staff,” explains Dr. Elliott. “Very premature babies do need to have support and be positioned well. It is best for parents of the very smallest, most premature babies to recline quite a bit, as the baby can otherwise easily get positioned poorly.”

If you are pumping to provide breast milk for your baby, kangaroo care can help stimulate more milk production. You may want to try pumping just after or even during kangaroo care.

If your baby is strong enough to feed at the breast, you can practice kangaroo care and breastfeeding at the same time. A lactation consultant or a NICU nurse can help position you both, so you and your baby are comfortable.

Potential Challenges

You may want to provide kangaroo care for your infant, but sometimes, there are obstacles to navigate. Here are some common problems.

You might not have time to be with your baby for as long as you’d like.

In an ideal world, providing kangaroo care for your baby for hours every day may be wonderful. But, you may not be able to provide that time. You may have other children at home. You may have a job and run out of maternity or paternity leave. You may feel lonely sitting at the hospital for hours at a time with just you and your baby.

Remember that whatever time you can give to your baby is beneficial. If you can only provide a half hour a day, that time is precious and will benefit you and your child. Also keep in mind that any caregiver can provide kangaroo care to your baby. You can share the responsibility with someone else.

You may feel shame or embarrassment over having a preterm baby.

Some mothers blame themselves for their low birth weight or preterm baby. While there are some lifestyle choices that can increase the risk for premature birth, allowing shame to keep you from your baby is only further hurting you and your newborn.

Talk to your healthcare provider or a therapist about your concerns and feelings. Try your best to show up for your baby now, regardless of whatever occurred in the past.

Your baby may not be medically stable enough to be placed on your chest.

Not all premature or low birth weight babies are strong enough to be on their caregiver’s chest. They may be on a ventilator or require extensive medical support that can’t be maintained in kangaroo care.

Even if you can’t have your baby placed directly on your chest skin-to-skin, there are other ways to support and bond with your baby, like placing your hand on their body inside the incubator.

“Gently lay your hand on the baby’s back without patting or using a lot of pressure,” explains Dr. Elliott. “Your baby will feel your reassuring touch. Quietly sing, talk, or read to your baby as well.”

A Word From Verywell

Having a premature or low birth weight baby can be frightening as a parent. You may worry about your baby, or feel disconnected from them when they are taken for medical support right after birth. Kangaroo care is a way to bond with your baby once they are stable enough, improve the odds of survival for your child, and perhaps even increase the odds of better health later in life.

If your hospital doesn’t suggest kangaroo care, don't be afraid to ask questions and advocate for your baby and yourself.

“Kangaroo care is really a wonderful thing to do for both babies and their families,” says Dr. Elliott. “Ask about doing kangaroo or skin-to-skin care every day. Most babies do really well with it and benefit from it.”

9 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  6. Charpak N, Tessier R, Ruiz JG, et al. Twenty-year follow-up of kangaroo mother care versus traditional care. Pediatrics. 2017;139(1):e20162063. DOI: 10.1542/peds.2016-2063

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By Rachel Gurevich, RN
Rachel Gurevich is a fertility advocate, author, and recipient of The Hope Award for Achievement, from Resolve: The National Infertility Association. She is a professional member of the Association of Health Care Journalists and has been writing about women’s health since 2001. Rachel uses her own experiences with infertility to write compassionate, practical, and supportive articles.