How ‘kangaroo care’ is helping tiny preemies grow and bond with parents

May 17, 2024
Closeup of baby's face as he yawns. He has tubes and gauze on his face. He is lying on the chest of a smiling woman.
Maggie Gambon holds her 10-week-old son, Eli. Photos by Sarah Pack

Maggie Gambon hadn’t had a baby shower yet or even bought maternity clothes. The lawyer-turned-marketer was still pretty far away from her due date. But her son Eli was arriving anyway – born March 8. “He weighed 1 pound, 11 ounces,” his mom said.

She’d known she was at risk for premature birth. Gambon had preeclampsia, “a life-threatening hypertensive disorder,” according to the Preeclampsia Foundation. It can lead to “a rapid rise in blood pressure that can lead to seizure, stroke, multiple organ failure and even death of the mother and/or baby,” the foundation’s website says.

“My OB at East Cooper sent me over here to MUSC for observation because of the preeclampsia. And then, while I was here for observation, pulmonary edema set in.” Pulmonary edema, which means too much fluid in the lungs, is life-threatening. That was a signal that her baby had to be born.

“They did an emergency C-section,” Gambon said of her cesarean section, a procedure that may have saved both her life and her baby’s.

Woman sits with baby in her chest. Two women standing on either side help with medical equipment that is attached to the baby. 
Nurse Kara St Laurent, left, and respiratory therapist Rebecca Barbrey help Maggie Gambon settle in to snuggle with Eli. She'll stay there for two or three hours at a time.

Eli was rushed to the neonatal intensive care unit at the MUSC Shawn Jenkins Children’s Hospital, where he’s had round-the-clock care ever since. His tiny body still needs time to grow before he’ll be big and healthy enough to go home to Summerville with his mom and dad.

Gambon or her husband visit every day. And they’ve learned something special that MUSC Children’s Health doctors and nurses know can help Eli thrive. Julie Ross, M.D., a neonatal specialist at the hospital, said it’s called kangaroo care or skin-to-skin care. Kangaroo, because kangaroo babies rush into their mothers’ pouches after birth, then stay there for months, feeding on their mothers’ milk and growing.

Whatever you call it, human babies need physical contact with a parent’s skin every day if possible. “Our goal is for parents to be able to do skin-to-skin care with their baby as soon as possible after delivery, ideally within the first 72 hours of life if they’re able. And then continuing that up to twice a day for as long as they would like to do that,” Ross said.

Banners that say kangaroo care: the snuggle is real hang in a hallway. 
The snuggle is real: Banners in the hospital hallway remind the families of premature babies of the importance of kangaroo care.

“Kangaroo care has significant benefits for preterm babies, including improved neurodevelopment. There are situations where skin-to-skin care can be challenging, based on how sick babies are at times, but we really try everything possible to make sure that it can happen, and when it’s not possible, we encourage parental contact in other ways, such as hand hugs and gentle touch during cares.”

It can be a little scary for the parents of a fragile-looking preemie like Eli. “It’s kind of a big production,” his mother said.

A nurse and a respiratory therapist are on hand to set them up for kangaroo care. Since Eli’s hooked up to machines, they slowly move him toward the bottom of his hospital bed. There, his mother leans over to pick him up carefully. They help her ease into a chair with her baby, where mother and son rest peacefully. She and her husband have seen what a difference it makes.

“We noticed that the days that we did kangaroo, he seemed to have a marked difference in how well he was doing. So we committed to doing it every day. Either I or my husband will be here to kangaroo with him,” Gambon said.

“And I don’t know if the research says if there’s any difference between mom or dad holding them or just human contact. We committed to ensuring he’s going to get skin to skin with one of us every single day, and he’s been doing so much better since we did.”

There’s plenty of science to back up the practice of skin-to-skin care. For example, the World Health Organization said research shows that it “significantly improves a premature or low-birthweight baby’s chances of survival.” It also can save up to 150,000 lives a year, according to the organization.

A woman with dark braids leans toward a tiny baby in a covered bed. She is smiling and reaching out to him. 
Delisa Abson smiles as her son, Braxton Abson grips her hand in the neonatal intensive care unit at the MUSC Shawn Jenkins Children's Hospital. She regularly bonds with him through skin-to-skin contact.

Families in the MUSC Shawn Jenkins Children’s Hospital see banners in the hallways promoting the importance of kangaroo care. Delisa Abson, another mother whose baby needs a little time in the hospital before he’ll be healthy enough to go home, makes it part of her routine, too.

Ross, the neonatal specialist, described some of kangaroo care’s other benefits. “It helps with the baby’s temperature control; reduces stress, including decreasing pain during procedures; increases weight gain; and improves overall stability in heart rate and oxygen saturations. It benefits mom as well in terms of breast milk production and can decrease parental stress and support bonding. The body responds to the baby’s closeness.”

Gambon said she can feel it happening during and after skin-to-skin time with Eli. “Every time I put him back in bed, my breasts feel like they’re gonna explode.” That may not sound like a great feeling, but she’s thrilled to be able to supply that milk to her son. A nurse noticed he’s getting baby fat rolls – a good sign for a little boy who’s still weeks from his original due date.

And the connection Gambon has been able to solidify with Eli while still in the hospital has been remarkable. “It helped tremendously with bonding early on. He was born at 26 weeks gestation, so, initially, I kind of felt like, ‘Man, what just happened to me? Did I have a baby?’ It felt kind of like a mirage. But getting to have skin to skin with him and smell him and feel him … it’s real. It made it real.”

Get the Latest MUSC News

Get more stories about what's happening at MUSC, delivered straight to your inbox.