Should dads be kangaroos, too?
Updated: Dec 8, 2022
What is kangaroo care and why does it matter for dads?
Kangaroo care is a method of caring for a baby, especially one who is premature, that involves holding the naked or partially dressed child against the bare skin of a parent (typically the chest), this often done by the mother, for as long as possible each day. A parent becomes a human 'incubator' for baby. The baby benefits from being on their parent's skin, their parent's smell and listening to the sound of their heartbeat.
The name kangaroo care comes from the fact that kangaroo mothers care for their joeys in their pouch where they will feed from their mother and continue their gestation until they are ready. The baby kangaroo will leave the pouch for the first time when it is about a quarter of the mother's weight!
When babies are born prematurely, the care that the baby needs is similar to the baby joey that is not yet strong enough to live without it's mother's support as it requires further time to gestate in the pouch.
In the 1970s, researchers found that premature babies that had experienced kangaroo care with a parent were more likely to survive and led to a range of positive outcomes such as improved breathing, readiness to feed and earlier discharge from hospital.
Why is kangaroo care good for dads?
Recent research finds that kangaroo care is good for dad's mental health as well. Research by Steen and colleagues finds that it increases the bond between father and child and enables the father to be more empathetic, as well as reduces fathers' stress hormones. Studies have found that when babies are in intensive care, fathers are at risk of developing anxiety and depression and kangaroo care with their babies may also reduce anxiety and stress in dads as well as build a bond. Other studies have found that new dads may perceive their relationship more positively after practicing kangaroo care and that it starts the relationship with baby on an equal footing.
In the past, dads were thought to be less important in bonding with a child in the perinatal period, but research like this suggests this is not the case and that skin-skin contact is important for both dad and child.
Is kangeroo care just for premature babies?
No, it is exceptionally important in preterm babies but it's also good for full-term babies and their parents.
For babies in the NICU, parents may do kangaroo care whilst baby has a tube to assist with breathing and this takes the support of a nurse to support safe kangaroo care and as would be expected for a baby in intensive care there are a number of special considerations.
Is Kangaroo care practiced worldwide?
Kangaroo care has also been found to be really important in settings where there is a shortage of incubators for preterm births. For example, in resource poor regions within Africa, kangaroo care can be critical in rural communities where there is a shortage of medical equipment, such as incubators (see link for more).
It's been established that kangaroo care or skin-skin contact has remarkable effects on on the health and development of premature babies and other positive effects on their mums, but our understanding of the importance of dads is new.
Now, a growing body of research finds that kangaroo care is really important for dads and their babies. Such contact with dad can both strengthen connection between father and child, as well as reduce stress for dads and baby and may enhance the relationship between mum and dad.