SEATTLE — One of the most significant causes of neonatal death on a global scale is low birth weight, since underweight babies are more prone to infection and low body temperatures.
The numbers are shocking. According to USAID’s Maternal and Child Health Integrated Program (MCHIP), 60 to 80 percent of neonatal deaths are related to low birth weight, and infants born underweight are 20 times more likely to die than heavier babies. In many cases, underweight babies die within 12 hours of delivery.
This problem is especially acute in low-resource countries and regions, which lack the adequate nutrition and technology to ensure healthy births, says Tina Rosenberg on the New York Times Fixes blog.
In more advanced countries, hospitals use incubators to stabilize babies who are born under a healthy weight. But these are hard to find in impoverished areas of Africa, South America and Asia.
In some cases, reports MCHIP, low-resource hospitals in these places even have babies sharing incubators, which increases the risk of infection and leads to more premature deaths.
Luckily however, there is a way to take on this challenge: kangaroo care.
Kangaroo Mother Care (KMC), as it is officially called, gets its name from the practice of mother kangaroos holding their newborns against their bodies to nurture their health. As it turns out, this practice works for humans, too.
The idea of using kangaroo care in place of expensive incubators was developed by a group of pediatricians in Bogota, Colombia, in the late 1970s. According to MCHIP, the first trial of a study conducted by the initial group “showed a drop in neonatal mortality from 70% to 30%.”
Over the following decades, these doctors, assisted by USAID, poured resources into popularizing the stunningly effective method in other low-resource countries around the world.
There are several reasons why kangaroo care is as effective as technological incubation—and could possibly be even more effective, according to Rosenberg.
Holding a premature baby to its mother’s exposed chest regulates the baby’s body temperature, and “the mother’s breasts, in fact, heat up or cool down depending on what the baby needs,” says Rosenberg. The mother’s heartbeat and breathing rate also regulate those of the baby, helping it get better sleep.
Kangaroo care also allows for a more flexible breastfeeding schedule, and the mother’s breasts produce more milk as a result of the prolonged contact. For premature babies, says Rosenberg, early breastfeeding is crucial to healthy weight gain.
There are also emotional benefits to kangaroo care. Mothers prefer to keep their babies close rather than watch as their children are isolated in incubators. Babies also seem to be happier the company of their mothers. The bonding that results from kangaroo care is tied to lower rates of abandonment.
Furthermore, kangaroo care frees up hospital employees and resources, as babies who receive the treatment do not require as much technological intervention and are typically able to go home sooner than other premature babies.
Many nonprofits and government agencies have hopped aboard the kangaroo care train, including the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Save the Children.
Another supporter of the kangaroo method of care is the Healthy Newborn Network (HNN). On its website, the HNN says that though the method is common in developed nations and the World Health Organization has officially endorsed it, “country-level adoption and implementation have been limited, and only a very small proportion of newborns who could benefit from KMC receive it.”
HNN blames misinformation for this shortcoming. While kangaroo care centers have sprouted in Malawi, India, Mexico and Afghanistan, among other places, many hospitals in developing countries have not been given sufficient knowledge or training to implement the method. And in some places, cultural norms opposed to skin-to-skin care pose another barrier to progress.
With more adequate funding, the kangaroo care method can overcome such challenges and become more widely known and practiced around the world. Such an important idea is worth spreading.