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Kangaroo Mother Care

Patty Spanjer
Dalton GA USA
Report from 2001 LLLI Conference
From: NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 18 No. 5, September-October 2001, p. 178

Skin-to-skin contact, and its role in optimal infant development, seemed to be a common theme in many of the Conference sessions I attended. Nowhere was this more evident than in the session by Nils Bergman, MD, on "Kangaroo Mother Care: Restoring the Original Paradigm of Infant Care and Breastfeeding."

Dr. Bergman, the superintendent of a maternity hospital in Mowbray, South Africa, is an expert in the area of kangaroo mother care-the practice of keeping mothers and their newbom babies together, skin-to-skin, when possible. He believes that no mothers and babies should be separated at birth. He pointed out that our cultural practice of separating mothers and babies is counter to our biological need for togetherness.

Biology indicates that human infants were designed for continuous feeding and holding. The most stable and safe place for a baby to grow and thrive is against his mother's body.

Human infants are the most immature of all mammals at birth. Based on the rate of brain growth in human infants and the size of the average adult brain, we can assume human babies are born about twelve months early compared to other marnmals. They need to complete their gestation on or near their mother. Baby's heartbeat and temperature remain much more stable with skin-to-skin contact.

Although newborns are totally dependent on adult caregivers, they are born with certain abilities. If placed on his mother's tummy after an unmedicated birth, a baby can squirm to the breast and initiate breastfeeding. Breastfeeding is something the baby does; the mother provides the habitat to enable it. Separation is breastfeeding's worst enemy. The mother and baby need to remain together for breastfeeding to get its best beginning.

Bergman explained four patterns that mammals follow when caring for their babies. The patterns are:

  • Cache, which feeds about every 12 hours,
  • Nest, which feeds about every four hours,
  • Follow, which feeds about every two hours, and finally,
  • Carry, which feeds about every 30 minutes or nearly continuously.

The composition (fat and protein ratio) of milk varies among mammals who follow each pattern. "Cache" mammals produce milk that is low in carbohydrates and high in fat and protein. "Carry" mammals (including humans) produce milk that is high in carbohydrates and low in fat and protein. This composition difference helps explain why kangaroo mother care is best for human babies although our society has tried to change the pattern. This societal change is counter to our biological design and potentially detrimental to the infant.

The speaker concluded by demonstrating kangaroo care with a live mother and baby. They circled the room so attendees could get a close-up look and ask questions.

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