(Reuters Health) - Premature and underweight newborns may be healthier as children and young adults if they pass their early days with their bare chests nestled directly against their mothers’ breasts, a new study suggests.
Researchers focused on a practice known as “kangaroo care,” which has been linked to lower infant mortality and better developmental outcomes for vulnerable babies. Kangaroo care includes 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.
“Kangaroo mother care has a significant, long lasting social and behavioral protective effect 20 years after the intervention,” said lead study author Dr. Nathalie Charpak, director of the Kangaroo Foundation in Bogota, Colombia.
For the current study, researchers examined data on 228 young adults who had been randomly chosen to receive kangaroo care as part of a study done when they were babies. Charpak and her colleagues compared outcomes for these kids to those of 213 young adults from the infant study who didn’t receive kangaroo care.
Babies that received kangaroo care were 61 percent less likely to die during infancy than newborns who didn’t receive this type of care, the researchers report in Pediatrics.
Breastfeeding rates were higher for the kangaroo care babies than the other infants, the study found. In addition, the infants who got kangaroo care had fewer severe infections requiring hospitalization.
As children, the kangaroo care kids typically spent more years in preschool than the control group of participants who didn’t receive this infant care, the study found.
Students who got kangaroo care as babies also scored higher on standardized math and language tests and earned higher hourly wages as young adults.
By age 20, the former kangaroo care babies were less likely to be aggressive, impulsive and hyperactive or to exhibit anti-social behaviors compared to their peers who didn’t receive kangaroo care as infants, the study also found. This difference was most pronounced when their mothers were poor and less educated.
It’s possible some of these outcomes might be the result of kangaroo care’s protective effect on the immature brains of preemies, Charpak said by email. This type of care might foster brain development that occurs late in pregnancy for full-term babies but that doesn’t have a chance to happen before premature infants are born.
Another possibility is that parents who provide kangaroo care also nurture children in other ways that are beneficial to health, social and behavioral outcomes, Charpak added.
One limitation of the study is that it doesn’t prove how kangaroo care may benefit babies, only that there are associations between receiving this treatment and several positive health outcomes, the authors note.
Even so, the findings suggest that kangaroo care provides a solid foundation for health later in life, said Dr. Lydia Furman, a pediatrics researcher at Case Western Reserve University and Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital in Cleveland, Ohio.
“Perhaps doing the kangaroo mother care helped the parents become more attentive and bonded and nurturing parents – certainly this is a thought and hope,” Furman, who wrote an accompanying editorial, said by email. “Biological responses would follow, not lead.”
While the benefits of kangaroo care during infancy have been well established, the current study offers fresh insight into the lasting effects of kangaroo care in adulthood, said Susan Ludington, executive director for the United States Institute for Kangaroo Care.
“Kangaroo care has remarkably positive outcomes on both biology – the brain's maturation, cerebral blood flow, cerebral oxygenation, connectivity between neurons and neuronal networks – as well as nurturing the mother's confidence and competence in child rearing, the quality and quantity of her interactions, strengthening the infant’s identity with his family members, and promotion of the infant’s mental, motor, and social development,” Ludington, who wasn’t involved in the study, said by email.