They’re fluffy, they’re tenacious, and they’ve got an affinity for hopping – but what do kangaroos have to do with health care? Quite a lot, according to new guidelines from the World Health Organization.
When caring for their young, mother kangaroos keep their babies close by; in a marsupium pouch in which newborns and infants can rest, keep warm, and suckle on a teat. Staying in the pouch is especially helpful for kangaroo babies born prematurely, because inside the pouch, they are protected from harsh weather and predators, and can drink milk at will.
As it turns out, premature human babies can benefit from a pouch-like system too. In the African country Senegal, midwives have been directed by the World Health Organization to train new mothers in “kangaroo mother care” – using a piece of fabric to bind an infant to her mother. From that position the baby will be warm, and able to breastfeed as needed.
Kangaroo care is low tech and low cost, and could prove extremely beneficial to countries such as Senegal, where many babies are born prematurely or below average birth weight. Premature babies have less time to develop in the womb, and are therefore more susceptible to illness or death during their first year of life. Respiratory or stomach problems often affect infants born prematurely, and these babies are also at a greater risk of developing infection that can lead to pneumonia or sepsis inflammation.
With kangaroo mother care, however, the risk of disease in premature babies can be reduced by more than 50 percent. In order to keep their bodies developing and their immune systems growing, premature babies need to be fed more than other infants – whereas a healthy newborn might require food every four hours, a premature baby will ask to be fed every one or two hours. The kangaroo mother care method keeps the baby close to his mother’s breast, ensuring that the infant can receive a constant supply of milk. Breast milk is essential to a new baby’s immunity, and getting premature babies more breast milk greatly reduces the likelihood of infant disease and mortality.
Besides access to breast milk, kangaroo care is also beneficial to premature infants due to warmth. Premature babies have a harder time keeping themselves warm, due to their lower birth weight. The group UNICEF reports that around the world, 24 percent of deaths in very young children are due to prematurity, and of those fatalities, a large number are the result of hypothermia. The kangaroo mother care method greatly reduces the risk of hypothermia by keeping offering the baby a constant supply of heat – from her mother. The skin-to-skin contact between infant and mother keeps the baby warm, and means that instead of expending energy to stay warm, the baby’s body will instead use its calories to grow.
Senegal has already experienced promising results from kangaroo mother care. The World Health Organization reports that in 1990, almost 5 percent of newborn babies did not survive. Now, infant mortality is at less than 3 percent, and although the reasons for this improvement are not fully understood, WHO is confident that kangaroo mother care has played a role. Health workers across Senegal are being trained in kangaroo care, and UNICEF has the long-term plan of bringing the method to more than 1,000 hospitals and health centers around the country.
Besides the benefits to infants, the kangaroo care method is also helpful to mothers. Women having a child for the first time may feel ill-prepared to care for their child; especially if the mother is very young herself. The kangaroo care method keeps the baby effortlessly close by, helping the mother to bond with her child and to get used to performing daily activities with a baby nearby. Keeping her infant close can also help a mother to more quickly recognize signs of infection or disease. With the baby attached to her at all times, a mother will be aware of changes in breathing, heart rate or body temperature, and can seek medical care for her infant as soon as the signs of illness occur. Skin-to-skin contact with her child can also improve mother-baby bonding, leading to a stronger confidence in motherhood and better care for the child as she grows.
Traditionally, premature babies are placed in a hospital’s intensive care unit where temperatures are kept warm and the infants can be fed at regular intervals. Although this medical intervention is effective for many babies, not every hospital around the world has the money or resources to care for premature babies; and in fact, many health experts say that the kangaroo care method is much better than the ICU. It is less expensive, ensures consumption of breast milk rather than formula, and creates a bond between mother and child. In countries such as Senegal, where health services are not always proficient more nearby, the kangaroo mother method is essential in that it helps a woman be self-sufficient at providing basic care for her premature infant.
The kangaroo mother care method may soon spread to other parts of the world. It is already popular in Scandinavia, demonstrating that the benefits of kangaroo care are not limited to developing countries. As the method becomes more common, as UNICEF, WHO and other health organizations hope it will, premature infant mortality and infant disease around the world could decrease.