It’s something that no expectant parent can prepare for. Most parents won’t even let themselves think it could happen to them and their baby-to-be. Luckily, most will never know how it feels to have a premature baby in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). Most mothers will never give birth to a micro preemie born at the cusp of viability. Most people will never know what it's like to have their baby born too soon, but for many parents it will become a reality.
Premature birth is a global issue and the numbers are alarming. Worldwide, an estimated 15 million babies are born preterm every year. That is more than 1 in 10 babies. The numbers are similar in Canada where currently, 1 out of every 12 babies is born prematurely.
The good news is that treatment and care for premature infants continue to improve. Neonatal intensive care units across the country have adopted new standards of care that have resulted in better survival rates. The simple power of touch is proving to be one of the most effective methods.
What could be more natural than a mother holding her newborn baby skin-to-skin close to her chest? As a neonatal nurse, I have been fortunate to help facilitate this moment hundreds of times. Known as Kangaroo Care for premature infants, this powerful interaction of mother and child benefits babies in more ways than we think. Holding your baby skin-to-skin during the first moments of life is an opportunity to shape your baby's overall health, and it is one of the most beneficial things that a mother can do for her newborn baby.
Why is touch so vitally important? Touch is one of the first senses to develop while the baby is still in the womb (between 7-8 weeks gestation). From their earliest weeks, babies depend on touch for exploring their world. There are many medical benefits too.
Research on Kangaroo Care shows that it helps babies in the NICU regulate their heart rate, breathing and temperature, improve head circumference, growth and weight gain. It also helps stabilize baby’s organ function and self-regulation abilities, experience less pain and less crying, facilitate better sleep patterns and improves breastfeeding outcomes. Research shows that skin-to-skin time with parents is calming, which positively impacts their brain and emotional development, and it can even shorten a preterm baby’s hospital stay.
Depending on your baby’s condition, Kangaroo Care can begin immediately after delivery or start once your baby is more stable. Even very small babies with major health issues can benefit from short sessions. Once baby is stabilized, sessions should be at least an hour (NICU policies vary). Your baby’s health care team will give advice about when your baby is ready for Kangaroo Care and will help you prepare.
Holding your baby skin-to-skin can help trigger the release of the hormones that can help to increase your breastmilk supply. During skin-to-skin contact your baby is close to his food. He can see and smell your skin and nipple/areola and this encourages him when it’s time to start breastfeeding.
Here are a few tips I use to help parents safely practice skin-to-skin holding while in the NICU and after they go home. These can also be adapted for a full term baby.
Parents often tell me how helpless they feel while their baby is in the NICU. I always tell them that participating in Kangaroo Care means they are giving their baby the best care possible.