An estimated 18 million babies worldwide are born each year with low birthweight – the vast majority of them in developing countries where comprehensive neonatal care is not available. So what’s the best way to care for them?
Absent the incubators and medical equipment found in technologically-advanced hospitals, the best treatment for small babies is a simple concept developed by a Columbian neonatologist in the late 1970s.
Dr. Edgar Rey Sanabria introduced the idea of kangaroo care for premature and low-weight babies. Essentially, the treatment involves continuous skin-to-skin contact between mother and baby, which helps to keep the baby warm and provide easy access for nursing.
A Cochrane review published last month reviewed the data available on kangaroo care for low birth-weight babies, mainly in developing countries. The analysis included 18 studies with more than 2,700 infants. Most began kangaroo care after the baby was stabilized. In some studies, the kangaroo care was continuous, but in others it was intermittent.
Compared with conventional neonatal care, the review found kangaroo care reduced the risk of infection, hypothermia, respiratory disease and death. Babies who experienced kangaroo care grew more quickly and were more likely to breastfeed.
The reviewers also noted that there is new research suggesting kangaroo care would improve infant health in high-income countries as well as developing countries.
The take-home message: Skin-to-skin care is an effective medical treatment for small and premature babies. Because it’s a low-tech option, it offers the opportunity to improve babies’ health and save lives across the globe.