Research conducted at Florida Atlantic University has shown that mother-infant touch significantly enhances neurodevelopmental regulation during early infancy. To achieve optimal neurophysiological development, the method of ‘Kangaroo Care (KC)’ – skin-to-skin, chest-to-chest contact between mother and child – is essential, especially for premature infants. This method of bonding stresses on the significance of holding a newly-born infant while he or she is naked or partially dressed against the bare skin of the mother.
The longitudinal randomized, controlled trial, published in the journal Infant Behavior and Development, also establishes the importance of using the kangaroo care technique during the post-partum period, and its positive impact on full-term infants and their mothers.
Investigating the Significance of Mother-Infant Touch and Contact
Various studies have demonstrated how mother-infant contact can improve and enhance neurodevelopmental regulation during early infancy. Lately, researchers have been focusing on the potential of kangaroo care (KC), a technique explained as the skin-to-skin, chest-to-chest contact between mother and infant, preferably right after birth. Previous studies contend that KC stimulates the ventral region of the skin, enabling the cascade of vagal-induced hormones. The latter helps down-regulate physiological stress responses and ultimately helps promote neuro-regulation.
Longer duration of kangaroo care improves neurobehavioral performance and feeding in preterm infants: a randomized controlled trial
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In order to investigate the potential of the kangaroo care technique on infant brain development, researchers focused on investigating two major aspects: measuring EEG (electroencephalogram) power/asymmetry and coherence, and levels of basal oxytocin and cortisol reactivity in both infants and mothers. Oxytocin, also known as the ‘cuddle’ hormone, is known to be associated with affection and caregiving whereas cortisol is produced as a response to stress.
Senior study author, Nancy Aaron Jones, Ph.D., associate professor and director of the FAU WAVES Emotion Laboratory in the Department of Psychology in FAU’s Charles E. Schmidt College of Science, and a member of the FAU Brain Institute (I-BRAIN), explained: “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. We also wanted to examine if kangaroo care increases oxytocin levels in mothers, which has important implications for post-partum depression.”
Findings and Implications
To begin with, mothers were assigned to two groups: KC and control. Mothers in the kangaroo care group were assigned a kangaroo care wrap and were properly taught the technique at every prenatal visit by certified trainers. Mothers were asked to follow the concept of skin-to-skin, chest-to-chest contact with their infants for one hour daily, for a total duration of six weeks. Also, they were to record the frequency of using the method in a journal provided to them. In comparison, mothers in the control group were allotted feeding pillows and a journal to record infant feedings for a period of six weeks. At three months, a Lycra cap was attached to babies in both groups for measuring EEG activity during five minutes of quiet-alert state. Basal oxytocin levels were measured via maternal and infant urine samples. Infant cortisol reactivity was assessed from samples of infant saliva, before and after administering a mild stressor.
Results of the study revealed that the left frontal region of the infant’s brain, which is concerned with the development and regulation of higher-order emotional and cognitive skills, seemed to be stimulated from the kangaroo care technique. Moreover, mother-infant combinations in the KC group showed higher levels of oxytocin and decreased stress reactivity which suggests that regulatory abilities are stimulated by experiences of positive caregiving during infancy.
Dr. Aaron Jones says:
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 kangaroo technique has mostly been used with preterm infants to improve the development of an immature nervous system. However, the current study has demonstrated the efficacy of this technique in protracted frontal lobe development of full-term infants as well, especially in the post-partum period. Researchers state that kangaroo care training along with the frequency of its use during infancy can positively impact both neurodevelopmental pathways and neurobiological functioning. Moreover, using the technique can also help mothers cope with the symptoms and stresses of post-partum depression.