While advanced technology saves the lives of many preemies, studies have shown that the most basic of all care -- simply holding the baby –may have the biggest impact of all. New moms of full-term babies at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania are strongly encouraged to hold their newborns skin-to-skin right after delivery. But when an infant is born prematurely and rushed off to the intensive care nursery (ICN), both mom and her baby miss out on the initial closeness that is so important to the baby’s health and development.
The ICN staff is helping moms and preemies at HUP and Pennsylvania Hospital regain this close bonding, thanks to a practice called kangaroo care. As the name implies, kangaroo care recreates the warm protective environment a baby kangaroo has in its mother’s pouch. The infant, wearing only a diaper and covered with a blanket, lies on the mom’s chest, with no barriers between them.
The nursing staff actively advocates for kangaroo care for all babies born at HUP but, according to Laura Carpenter, BSN, RN, IBCLC, a lactation consultant in the ICN, this skin-to-skin practice may have even greater impact on preemies than full-term babies.
Studies have shown that kangaroo care, which allows the baby to hear the mother’s heartbeat, helps to stabilize the baby’s own heart rate and breathing. And, despite the noises in the ICN, babies can fall into a deeper sleep while being “kangarooed,” thereby conserving energy for important things … like gaining weight. Carpenter said that this, in turn, can lead to shorter hospital stays.
Also, “the mother’s body heat helps keep her baby’s internal temperature stable so he or she can stay out of the incubator for longer periods of time,” Carpenter said. When premature infants are out of that warm environment and swaddled (wrapped snugly in a blanket), their internal body temperature starts falling quickly and as a result must be placed back in the incubator.
What’s truly amazing, though, is that, during kangaroo care, the mother’s body temperature automatically adjusts to the baby’s needs. “If the baby gets cold, mom gets warmer,” Carpenter said. “If the baby gets too warm, mom cools her own temperature. It’s awesome.”
Moms – and dads – benefit as well. In the ICN, “it is typically doctors and nurses who care for the baby initially. Parents often feel helpless and don’t know how they can connect to their baby,” she said. “Kangaroo care provides a way for them to bond and feel like parents to their infant.”
Last week, the unit held a Kangaroo-a-thon to raise awareness of the initiative and educate new preemie parents about why this simple practice has such a tremendous impact. “We provided informational packets, encouraged skin-to-skin holding, and took photos and displayed them on the unit bulletin board.
“We are encouraging families to hold babies in kangaroo care at whatever time they are visiting,” Carpenter said. “We just hope to have lots of babies snuggling skin to skin with their parents.”
Photo caption: Preemie Paloma Quinones sleeps soundly while mom Lainey uses kangaroo care to hold her close.