A very human connection - How the natural instinct behind 'Kangaroo Care' supports Breastfeeding

mum breastfeeding her baby skin to skin

There is much in common between breastfeeding and skin to skin contact, they are instinctive acts of nurturing that have been instrumental in the survival of the human race and are still part of our biological programming.  From protecting the vulnerable immune system of newborn babies to strengthening the bond with their mother both breastfeeding and skin to skin contact give babies the best start in life and while Kangaroo Care can increase the likelihood of breastfeeding succeeding it can also offer unique benefits of its own for all babies.

Skin to Skin contact (called Kangaroo Care when practised regularly from birth) is achievable for all mothers and babies, even where there are life-saving interventions required first. While it is recognised as being important immediately after birth it is beneficial at any time, the only real barriers are a historical lack of understanding of its benefits and the overriding of instincts in an increasingly clinical birth environment.  As awareness of the importance of Kangaroo Care grows these barriers can be broken down, by both the professionals supporting births and most importantly by us as parents.

Breastfeeding, however, remains subject to more widespread barriers for many new mums, especially those in developed countries who may be without the post-natal support given to mothers in more traditional cultures.  Can Kangaroo Care help overcome these barriers, leading us to trust our innate responses to our newborn babies?


Breastfeeding is the biological norm, and for the majority of the world's population it is recognised as the most natural act a mother can perform for her baby.  Sadly, in many western cultures this natural, instinctive practice has been marginalised through sexualisation of breasts, marketing of formula and the disappearance of societal structures that mean young women no longer witness breastfeeding mothers and infants as they grow up, losing the empowering experience of seeing breastfeeding as a normal part of parenting.

In many developing countries breastfeeding is the only safe means of feeding a baby as access to clean drinking water to make up formula, and the financial means to buy it are not widely available.  


Choosing not to breastfeed, or having to end breastfeeding due to difficult circumstances, lack of support or biological issues does not lessen a mother's dedication or love for her baby.  Deep down, maternal love is not affected by how a mother feeds her baby, a mother's love is immeasurable and surrounds her child in security and strength from the moment they are born.  Enjoying time with their baby through kangaroo care can be a powerful way for a mother to deepen the bond with her baby.  Where birth or early feeding attempts have been distressing, time together in skin to skin contact can be a healing experience.


A mother's body produces breast milk in synchronicity with the baby's needs, both in terms of amount and content.  The composition of human milk changes within a feed to ensure the baby is hydrated, receives sufficient nutrition and also contains hormones, principally 'oxytocin' the love hormone, that deepens attachment, aids rest, and helps to regulate the immature systems of the new infant.  Breast milk contains the optimal levels of proteins, fats and carbohydrates to aid growth whilst the unique pre-biotic Oligosaccharides produced support the baby's immune system.  As the baby matures so does the milk, adapting to the changing needs of the growing infant. 


Kangaroo care; the regular sharing of skin to skin contact between a parent and baby, in an upright hold on the parent's chest creates a deep hormonal response that triggers bonding and provides comfort.  Levels of oxytocin in mother and child are increased which fosters healthy attachment and induces extended periods of deep sleep which boost brain development.  Skin to Skin contact regulates the infant's still immature systems like body temperature, respiration and heart rates.  This reduces stress levels enabling babies to gain maximum nutritional benefit when feeding improving weight gain.  The transfer of parental antibodies develops immunity leading to reduced risk of infection and earlier discharge from hospital for those babies in neonatal care. 

Spending time in skin to skin contact gives newborn babies the opportunity to initiate feeding at the breast.  Milk production occurs in response to suckling and the contact between mother and baby not just at the breast but also when the baby is held on her chest.  Where there is any kind of difficulty in feeding, skin to skin contact and free access to the breast is highly effective in getting the process back on track.  The hormonal response to the baby's touch during skin to skin contact reduces cortisol levels in both baby and mother and increases levels of oxytocin which is crucial for milk production.


Modern medicine has rediscovered the science of kangaroo care over the last 50 years.  Research began initially in South America where technology used by 'advanced' countries could not be reliably sourced.  Seeking ways to reduce infant mortality, doctors visited rural communities to see how they supported babies born too early.  These most vulnerable infants were kept alive by being placed directly on their mothers' chests 24 hours a day enabling them to maintain their temperature, access the breast, and stabilising respiration and heart rates.  These babies were less prone to infection and gained weight healthily.  When this principle was applied in the hospital the survival rates increased compared to using the patchy access to incubators.

Now recognised by leading neuro-scientists and neo-natalogists as being the optimal standard of care for premature babies, Kangaroo Care also has huge benefits for full term babies supporting their physical, mental and emotional development and providing a strong attachment between parent and caregiver that has lasting impact on their relationships with others and their overall health.  There is a growing awareness of Kangaroo Care as also being the biological norm for the human species. 


For mothers, taking our newborn baby into our arms and placing them on our chest is an instinctive act, borne of millions of years of evolution just as babies naturally seek out their mother's body, immediately after birth.  If left uninterrupted the baby will rest on its mother's chest for 40-60 minutes then, once they have acclimatised they will begin a crawl toward the breast and latch on, without any intervention. Watching babies initiate feeding in this way when they are less than an hour old is staggering and underlines the need to allow those innate actions to unfold naturally.


Around the world the importance of nurturing these instinctive responses is now much more widely understood, and Kangaroo Care and it's role in supporting breastfeeding is being promoted during the special moments between all new parents and their babies.  There are many voices joining the call for Kangaroo Care to be prioritised and protected as the right of all parents and babies, including leading charities like UNICEF, BLISS and The Gates Foundation. They are supported by neuroscientists, neo-natologists, midwives, doulas, breastfeeding supporters and parents.  Kangaroo Care represents a move toward trusting our instincts and those of our babies, creating a more connected species, one birth at a time.

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