A “Kangaroo Care Champion” in Brazil

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By: Gary Darmstadt and Wendy Prosser, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

This post was originally posted on Impatient Optimists and is reposted here with permission.

The Ministry of Health in Brazil has taken enormous strides to improve maternal and newborn health and adopt a humanized care approach for moms and newborns. They adopted “Kangaroo Care,” also called skin-to-skin contact, the practice of holding a baby close to the skin, as a national policy for low birth weight babies over a decade ago.

And there is one woman in the country who could be called the “Kangaroo Care Champion.”

Brazil’s own Dr. Zeni Carvalho Lamy has engaged in long-term research on this type of care, which demonstrates the extraordinary benefits for newborns—and their parents. Her research has been invaluable to the larger push to get Kangaroo Care adopted worldwide.

Dr. Lamy is working in a variety of ways to improve the chance that small babies have to survive. Though Gary Darmstadt, one of the writers of this post, has written several posts about this deceptively simple practice, Dr. Zeni Carvalho Lamy and her research on this life-saving method inspired him to write another.

Skin-to-skin care has been shown to have incredible benefits. In addition to the fact that it promotes breastfeeding, normalizes the baby’s temperature, increases weight gain, reduces the incidence of infections, and facilitates bonding between baby and parents, Dr. Lamy’s own study at the University Hospital of Federal Maranhão confirms that skin-to-skin care actually reduces pain responses for the newborn.

It’s a force of nature that can save lives.

In fact, Kangaroo care is proven to be one of the most effective means we have to save the lives of preterm (premature) infants.

Kangaroo Care began as an ideal method for low-resource (poor) regions of the world, where technological advances such as incubators, the typical method of treating preterm infants, aren’t available. But what Brazil is showing is that this simple, basic method of care is for all babies—those in the best neonatal intensive care unit available as well as those who may not even have had access to a midwife during delivery.

The University Hospital where Dr. Lamy is based teaches moms and dads how to provide skin-to-skin contact for as much time during the day as possible.

Kangaroo Care allows for the mother and baby to reconnect after an often alarming preterm delivery. Practicing Kangaroo Care while still in the hospital also gives parents a chance to overcome their reservations and fears of caring for a preterm baby while having constant support from health care workers.

Once released from the hospital, parents have more confidence in caring for their child. As a result, these mothers are more likely to exclusively breastfeed (feeding the newborn nothing but breast milk for the first six months of an infant’s life) and are more able to recognize and respond to their baby’s needs.

For the first several weeks at home, frontline health workers, community health providers including peer counselors, skilled birth attendants, and others, conduct a weekly home visit until the baby reaches an acceptable weight. Routine follow-up for both preterm and full-term babies, including support for the practice of Kangaroo Care, also continues at health care clinics.

The hospital follows-up with these low birth weight babies through the years, until their seventh-year birthday party. Each year, the nurses and doctors get to celebrate with these children and their parents, celebrating both their birthdays, and the enormous benefits of a simple practice that helped them survive the first perilous days and weeks of life.

Kangaroo Care has been adopted across Brazil for preterm and low birth weight babies, thanks in large part to Dr. Zeni Lamy’s amazing research on the practice. It can and should be adopted by all parents all around the world. The benefits are enormous. Every baby deserves a seventh-year birthday celebration.

Interested in learning more about Kangaroo Care and what you can do to help spread the word and raise awareness? In December 2011, the first Kangaroo Care Conference for Latin America and the Caribbean was hosted by USAID. The United States was there as well. Information was shared with the goal to learn about and connect across borders to promote Kangaroo Care as a life-saving tool. Read up about this amazing practice on Impatient Optimists, or on the Healthy Newborn Network. Read the stories of families who have adopted this practice, watch this video, and spread the word about the benefits. And if you have a story to share, please do so in the comments.

Continue the conversation on Twitter with Gary Darmstadt (@gdarmsta), MCHIP (@mchipnet), the Healthy Newborn Network (@HealthyNewborns), Unicef (@UNICEF),  and the MHTF (@MHTF).