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The power of a mother’s touch

VSO/Ginny Lattul

What if you could help your baby to grow and thrive, simply by holding it close to you? Read about the zero-cost technique saving lives around the world.

A mother is instructed in how to perform Kangaroo Mother Care VSO/Peter Caton

A mother at the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at Moroto Regional Referral Hospital, is instructed in how to perform Kangaroo Mother Care

In 1978, Colombian paediatrician Edgar Rey Sanabria was faced with a problem in his hospital: too many babies, and not enough incubators. The solution? A technique called kangaroo care.

Edgar asked mothers to carry their babies around with them at all times, just like a kangaroo, with skin-to-skin contact between mother and baby, the child secured with cloth. Mothers were instructed to only put their baby down when absolutely necessary: changing the baby’s nappy, washing, or when a doctor or nurse was examining the baby.

This simple technique helped to regulate the babies’ temperature, improve bonding and drastically boosted babies’ chances of survival. Kangaroo care became so popular that it is used around the world today, 40 years on.

Janneke Burgers, 35, is pictured here sitting in Ligali hospital while on shift training doctors. Janneke Burgers

Janneke Burgers, 35, is training doctors at Ligali hospital in newbown care, which includes encouraging mothers to hold their babies close to them.

Kangaroo care in practice

Janneke Burgers, 35, is an obstetrics gynaecologist from the Netherlands and has been working on a maternity ward at Ligali Hospital in Tanzania for the past eight months.

Janneke is teaching doctors the specific skills needed to care for mothers and babies, as well as educating them on kangaroo mother care.

“We know that when a baby is close to its mum, with skin to skin contact, and being breastfed, the baby grows and develops faster,” says Janneke.

Research has shown that kangaroo care improves weight gain, brain development, better quality sleep and better temperature control for a newborn, as well as reducing infection and sepsis by nearly 60%.

Janneke Burgers, 35, is shown here practicing kangaroo care with her littlest. Janneke Burgers

Practicing what you preach: Janneke is shown here demonstrating kangaroo care with her littlest.

Making resources go further

In developing countries, kangaroo care is hugely valuable. Resources are limited, so no-cost, simple solutions like this can make all the difference.

In Ligali Hospital where Janneke works, there aren’t enough heated cots for all the premature and underweight babies that need to be kept warm. Some share cots, but when there isn’t room, kangaroo mother care can provide a solution.

“When the babies are keeping warm, whether with their mums or under a heat lamp, they can save their energy instead of putting all of it into keeping their bodies warm. They really need all their energy to grow, to breathe, to feed.”

One mother in Tanzania practicing kangaroo care VSO/Peter Caton

One mother in Tanzania practicing kangaroo care, which research has shown can improve bonding between mothers and babies.

Mother and baby bonding time

Janneke believes there’s a real need for kangaroo care in countries with high rates of child mortality.

“Back home, mothers start to attach to their baby when it's still in the womb. They have their first ultrasound at twelve weeks.”

“They start to think of names and prepare a room for the baby with a cot. These mums are really prepared and looking forward to their baby.

“Here, mothers prepare for something different: they prepare for the possibility they will lose their baby during childbirth or soon after.

“Kangaroo care encourages the bonding to happen a little bit faster .”

Back to basics

Newborn mortality isn’t just a problem in developing countries; it’s a global issue. Newborn deaths account for nearly half of deaths among children under the age of five globally. This equates to 2.7 million lives lost each year. So, Janneke believes there’s a thing or too we can learn from this technique.

“The way we handle babies in Europe and the US always seems unnatural to me. We carry this baby in our body for nine months, feeding it with our own blood, our own oxygen and the baby is very close to our hearts hearing the heartbeat all the time.

“Then when it is born we put clothes on the baby and we put it in a crib. It's very weird when you think about it – it's more natural to carry babies very close to our bodies.

“Here in Tanzania, women carry their babies everywhere with them – when they go to work, when they go to buy groceries. They take their babies around like a real kangaroo.”

Janneke believes countries around the world stand to benefit from kangaroo care.

“I would encourage everyone to practice kangaroo care, but especially here in Tanzania. I think every baby can benefit from kangaroo care."

Making the first cruicial hours count

Leese Paska, 20, with the baby girl she delivered this morning VSO/Peter Caton

Leese Paska, 20, with the baby girl she delivered that morning after a difficult and dangerous labour.

The first 28 days of life (neonatal period) is the most vulnerable time for a child’s survival. Most neonatal deaths can be avoided through simple techniques and cost-effective equipment.

Kangaroo care is one approach used as part of a wider VSO efforts to help bring down rates of mother and newborn mortality rates in countries across Africa.

As well as encouraging kangaroo care for high risk babies, volunteers are embedding lots of low-cost techniques to care for newborns in their first crucial hours of life.

For example, colour-coded 'newborn checklists' allow health workers to assess a baby against a number of criteria including colour, heart rate, reflexes, muscle tone, and respiration. If the assessment shows the neonate is in the “red zone”, they are referred to specialist care.

Simple techniques like these, along with the training and mentoring of local health staff, and donations of game-changing technology such as portable ultrasound scanners mean newborn mortality rates have reduced in VSO target communities. 

Read more about how we're helping to improve healthcare in some of the most vulnerable communities around the world.