‘Kangaroo Care’: Direct Skin Contact Between Mother, Infant Promotes Brain Development

BOCA RATON — Want to help your baby’s brain grow? Try using “Kangaroo Care,” a technique of newborn care that emphasizes skin-to-skin contact between a newborn and a parent, typically the mother. Researchers at Florida Atlantic University have found that Kangaroo Care promotes neural development in newborns and helps them regulate their hormone levels as they develop into full-term infants.

Additionally, the study shows that Kangaroo Care is beneficial for the mother and might reduce the likelihood of developing postpartum depression.

Baby wearing cap for study
For the study, babies were fitted with a stretch Lycra cap to measure EEG activity during a five-minute quiet-alert state at three-months. Oxytocin was measured by collecting maternal and infant urine, and infant cortisol reactivity was measured by collecting infant saliva samples before and after a mild stressor. (Photo credit: Florida Atlantic University)

Researchers recruited 33 mother-infant pairs for their study. They randomly divided the pairs into a Kangaroo Care group and a standard care group. Mothers in the Kangaroo Care group were given a Kangaroo Care wrap and were taught appropriate techniques by a certified trainer. They were instructed to use Kangaroo Care skin-to-skin contact with their baby for one hour a day. Mothers in the standard group were given infant feeding pillows. Both groups were instructed to use their prescribed method of care for 6 weeks and were given journals to record either the frequency of Kangaroo Care use or infant feedings.

When the babies turned three months old the researchers took electroencephalogram (EEG) measurements of the brain activity of the baby, cortisol measurements from the baby, and oxytocin measurements from both baby and mother. Oxytocin, the “cuddle” or “love” hormone, plays a role in caregiving and affectionate behavior. Cortisol, the “stress” hormone, is a key player in the “fight-or-flight” stress response.

“We wanted to know if exposure to extended tactile stimulation using the Kangaroo Care method would increase peripheral basal oxytocin and suppress cortisol reactivity in the babies in our study,” says senior author Nancy Aaron Jones, Ph.D., an associate professor, and director of the FAU WAVES Emotion Laboratory in the Department of Psychology in FAU’s Charles E. Schmidt College of Science, in a release. “We also wanted to examine if Kangaroo Care increases oxytocin levels in mothers, which has important implications for post-partum depression.”

The analysis of the hormone samples shows that at three months, both mother and baby from the Kangaroo Care group had increased oxytocin levels compared with mother-infant pairs from the control group. Also, babies in the Kangaroo Care group had a smaller increase in cortisol levels in response to a stressful event than babies in the control group. These results indicate the importance of “touch” for proper hormone regulation.

Furthermore, the EEG analysis shows that Kangaroo Care stimulates activity in the left frontal area of the brain. This brain region is involved in numerous higher cognitive functions and emotional regulatory skills.

Jones concludes by saying, “our findings across several studies demonstrate a link between the supportive dimensions of maternal caregiving behavior and left hemisphere neurodevelopment, with maternal warmth and sensitivity predicting greater regulatory abilities and secure attachment. Full-term infants and their mothers likely benefit from the positive interactive experiences inherent in extended Kangaroo Care use.”

The study is published in Infant Behavior and Development.

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