Today is International Kangaroo Care Awareness Day. Honestly it seems to be each week there is something to bring to the forefront of peoples’ minds when it comes to the world of prematurity and to be quite honest, I think that’s perfectly okay!
Last week I got the amazing opportunity to speak on a local radio station during a radiothon for a local child development centre and I discussed how the parents of preterm infants really end up thinking about all the smallest, finest details of how to parent and care for their small, fragile babies. From the moment they are born we are on alert and want to protect and do anything we can to keep our babies from harm, as well as do anything we can to help them grow and progress in order to go home.
This is where Kangaroo Care comes in. Kangaroo Care is not a new concept, but it has been growing in practice in North American neonatal intensive care units. As the years go by there is more research indicating the close skin-to-skin touch between a mother and baby or father and baby really does wonders for the well-being of the preterm or NICU baby, as well as for the mental health of the parents. When babies are held in kangaroo fashion, which is usually just in a diaper and held snuggly against the parent’s bare chest the babies are found to have more regular breathing (less apnea) and heart beat (less bradycardias) patterns and therefore less desats(low blood oxygen) episodes. It seems that this close contact with the parent stimulates the baby’s body and neurological system, making it seem as though the baby is protected as it would have been had the baby still been in utero. This is one mom with three preemies’ thought anyway.
I recall the first time I got to “officially” hold my baby as though it was yesterday. It was actually 5 years ago, but I remember the setting, the sounds, the whole surreal feeling I was having in this place we were suddenly calling home; The NICU. In that dimly lit, private room I was finally able to hold my baby and get to know him, while reclining in a chair and holding my baby snug as a kangaroo (a bug?), close to my skin and tucked in for a nap for the first time. He was 5 days old, but finally Mommy and Baby were together as we were meant to be. I ended up snuggling with him for close to an hour that first time. My husband was giddy with excitement to finally get to hold him like this when the next turn came around.
The Kangaroo Care experience was peaceful. When we were sitting like that in the early days, getting to know our baby, that is when we were able to accomplish much of our much needed bonding that had to be put on hold for a few days anyway.
Two years later we were well-versed on the value of Kangaroo Care and you didn’t have to tell me twice that it was time to begin Kangaroo Care with the twins when they were finally healthy enough. I mentioned how great Kangaroo Care is for the mental health, but it is also helps parents release the tension they may be holding in their bodies. I remember walking around feeling tense; this tension in my chest (real or imagined, whatever) and as soon as I was holding each baby closely I could truly feel that tension release.
So if you find yourself in a NICU and questioning the point of doing Kangaroo Care or if you feel shy or embarrassed for whatever reason, I suggest giving it a go anyway. Talk to your baby’s nurse about wanting to do Kangaroo Care and to discuss when the time is right. Then when it's time, pull that curtain closed, have your own comfortable button up shirt (that you’ll wear backward) ready and waiting, which you’ll use to wrap the baby in, rather than a hospital gown. It’s worth a shot and you might be surprised how relieved you feel and you’ll see your baby respond practically immediately.
A couple of special notes to be aware of: Sometimes babies will need additional time to mature and be well enough to take out of the incubator to do Kangaroo Care. Be patient and don’t give up during that waiting process. The opportunity to bond with your baby in this way is not one that should be dismissed. To put it in perspective: I didn't get to hold Preemie 1 until 5 days old, Preemie 2 until 14 days old (hey, today is that anniversary--3 years ago!) and Preemie 3 really had me in a holding pattern, because I didn't get to hold him until he was 24 days old! The waiting periods were worth it! The first time I held each of my babies it was for formal Kangaroo Care.
Nowadays you can buy a snug wrap, which was purposely designed for Kangaroo Care. I didn't have that option at the time and I used a backward hospital gown or my own button up shirts worn backward and they did the trick. Once your baby is tucked in, you can also ask a nurse to tuck a blanket over you and your baby for additional warmth if needed. To avoid "boredom" while doing Kangaroo Care, bring a book to read.