When Melissa Bungar gave birth to her third child, she sometimes instinctively nestled infant Chloe against her bare chest, skin to skin.
"My husband thought I was crazy. It just felt like the right thing to do," said Bungar, who lives in Perry Township.
Four years later, when she checked into the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's Magee-Women's Hospital to deliver her fourth child, she filled out a form that asked whether she wanted to do "kangaroo care." A nurse explained it was skin-to-skin care. Bungar answered yes.
"There's a lot of chaos sometimes after a baby is born," said Bungar, whose daughter Eden was born March 2. "It sounded like a nice focal point."
It was the same thing she had done with Chloe; "I just never called it kangaroo care."
It's also called "kangaroo mother care" and "kangaroo mother intervention." Published accounts track the re-emergence of this ages-old technique to 1978 in Bogota, Columbia, where a pediatrics chief recommended it to ease shortages of doctors, nurses and incubators in the Mother and Child Institute's neonatal unit.
The idea was that a mother's body temperature could take the place of the incubator -- just like a mother kangaroo nurtures her baby in her pouch -- while enhancing mother-to-baby bonding. Holding the baby skin-to-skin in an upright or near-upright position around the clock also would encourage successful breast-feeding and allow early discharge of stable babies regardless of weight or gestational age.
Magee began promoting the practice in 1997 in the neonatal intensive care unit. It expanded in the last few years with full-term babies in the Womancare Birth Center and post-partum newborn care. Dads can do kangaroo care, too.
Earlier studies of its use abroad suggested that kangaroo care of low-birthweight infants reduced severe illness, infection and breast-feeding problems; improved mother-baby bonding and perhaps even saved lives. Other studies said there was not enough scientific evidence to declare skin-to-skin an effective alternative to standard care.
But the American Academy of Pediatrics supports kangaroo care for stable premature infants in neonatal intensive care units.
"The surprising benefits of kangaroo care for the infant include warmth, stability of heartbeat and breathing, increased time spent in the deep sleep and quiet alert states, decreased crying, increased weight gain, and increased breast-feeding. These benefits are apparent even when kangaroo care occurs for only a few minutes each day," the academy says on its website.
The benefits are numerous, agreed Tammy Casper, a developmental specialist who promotes kangaroo care at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center's neonatal intensive care ward. Introduced there about 20 years ago, it's used on about 80 percent of the babies, including preemies and full-term infants.
"The only reason it wouldn't be is if the baby is very ill or needing a surgery, if we're worrying about a wound," Casper said.
Casper credited kangaroo care with a baby's "better weight gain; better sleep time -- sleep helps brain development; they grow better; it helps with mother's anxiety and post-partum depression. It evens out their breathing, (helps) skin maturation; and declining rates of infection."
She said studies have shown kangaroo care will decrease length of hospital stay, so it's a potential cost-saving measure.
Lynn Kramer, a registered nurse and certified lactation consultant at Magee, cited other benefits:
- Breast-feeding is more likely to be exclusive and of longer duration;
- Even bottle-fed babies stabilize more quickly in terms of body temperature, heart rate and breathing.
Kramer said kangaroo care can be useful even if the baby can't be placed skin-to-skin immediately after birth.
"It can be used months later and have an impact on mother, baby, dad," she said. "Continuing skin-to-skin through the first year there is a benefit: Babies have better self-esteem, a sense of trust."