When a baby is born prematurely, doctors do everything they can to make sure the baby stays healthy and develops properly. Medical advances have increased survival rates among preterm infants, but it turns out that simple human interactions still make as much of an impact as the latest medical innovations. A recent study from the journal Pediatrics found that holding babies skin-to-skin has long-lasting benefits that impact everything from behavior to structural changes in the brain.
Babies love to be held, and it turns out “kangaroo care,” as it’s called, is especially important for preterm babies. Kangaroo care means a baby lays on the chest of a caregiver, ideally for long stretches of time wearing nothing but a diaper and a blanket to stay warm. The core of kangaroo care is skin-to-skin contact, and this contact is often with the mother, although it doesn’t have to be. (Just look at this touching photo of a young boy giving skin-to-skin contact to his premature sibling.)
Babies who receive kangaroo care after birth have fewer behavioral problems and demonstrate changes in parts of the brain linked to learning even 20 years later. These babies also gain weight faster and show improved oxygen saturation.
The study followed preterm and low-weight babies born in Colombia in the 1990s. Researchers followed up with them 20 years later and analyzed their health and social function as well as the structure of their brains. They found that babies who received kangaroo care were less aggressive, less impulsive and less hyperactive as young adults than those who were kept in an incubator. They also found that they had more volume in a part of the brain associated with learning and memory.
Previous research supports the idea that kangaroo care provides short-term benefits for the survival and neurodevelopment of preterm babies, but this latest research was able to show the long-lasting benefits of this skin-to-skin contact.