Revisiting skin-to-skin contact—a radical alternative to save premature babies

Revisiting skin-to-skin contact—a radical alternative to save premature babies

The Kangaroo Mother Care (KMC) idea, which originated amid grinding poverty, may be a cheaper and better option than incubators in saving premature babies.

In the silent and sleepy neighbourhood, Singaporean Selina Ibrahim’s two-week-old baby’s incessant cries awakened residents, leaving the parents helpless and stressed. But when the frantic mother—upon the advice of a friend—snuggled him against her chest, the cries ceased and the baby appeared to enjoy the soothing cuddle.

Undeniably, there is something magical in the human touch.

“It was the first time I had heard about kangaroo care and its effects. My son and I had some skin-to-skin time right after delivery, but no one told me I could carry on doing it,” said Selina.

“It is recommended that, as soon as the baby is stabilised after birth, the baby should be laid onto the mother’s bare skin over her chest, provided the mother is also well enough to tolerate it,” says Dr Natalie Ann Epton, a paediatrician and neonatologist at Mount Elizabeth Hospital, Singapore.

In places when incubators are beyond their limited budgets, desperate parents can only caress their babies in the hope that the special touch would heal. And all at once, in that one miraculous embrace, all the hype of technology—however revolutionary—pales in comparison with this timeless healing therapy of human bonding.

Kangaroo Mother Care—more than a poor man’s option

An idea born of necessity and amid grinding poverty, the skin-to-skin contact has served the poorest, where infant death rates spiral—and doctors are now convinced that it could be better off than the incubator.

The concept of Kangaroo Mother Care (KMC) was the brainchild of Colombian paediatrician Edgar Rey, who felt compelled to try a more radical method against a backdrop of overcrowding and shortage of incubators—along with high cross infection and escalating infant death rates in Colombia’s biggest neonatal unit, which delivers 30,000 babies a year. In 1978, Rey introduced the concept of KMC to the Instituto Materno Infantil, which served the city’s poorest; particularly young impoverished mothers who live in makeshift houses at the foothills.

Intrigued by the revelation and the physiology of the kangaroo, Rey tested it in the hospital where he trained mothers of premature babies to carry them in the same way that kangaroos do. Together with his colleague Hector Martinez, he taught them the importance of breastfeeding and discharged them just as soon as their babies were able.

The trial – conducted by Rey alongside his colleague, Hector Martinez – achieved amazing results: death rates and infection levels plunged immediately, hospital stays were shorter—thus, freeing up incubators and reducing the number of abandoned babies.

Torres: “KMC was a ray of light”

Carmela Torres was 18 when she became pregnant for the first time in 1987. She gave birth to a premature baby who died three days later.

A decade passed before Torres was pregnant again; but a couple of months before her due date, she experienced familiar contractions and was admitted to the same hospital.

The next morning Torres gave birth to another boy whom she named immediately as Julian. He weighed almost the same as her firstborn and it was like reliving the past.

“I spent a very frightening night panicking that I was about to lose another baby,” she says.

“But the next morning a doctor came to see me. She told me about a thing called Kangaroo Mother Care—how I could act as a human incubator and carry my own baby and take it home with me. It was a ray of light at the end of the tunnel. Anything rather than leave my baby there.”

Mothers are encouraged to cuddle in close physical contact with their...

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