Kangaroo Mother Care was initiated in Bogota, Colombia after a dying newborn premature baby was handed to her mother as a last resort. The mother placed the baby skin to skin on her chest to say her last goodbyes and the little one thrived and survived. Doctors observed the ‘accidental’ recovery and decided to embark on groundbreaking studies of premature infants in a critical condition when they were placed skin to skin on their mothers’ chests. The results were astounding and what began as a tentative experiment has become a worldwide success in terms of premature and neonatal infant care.
The History of Touch
Prior to this wonderful event though, researchers in the west began experiments and observational studies which scientifically discovered the importance and benefits of touch for infants. Ashley Montagu, the famous anthropologist who wrote Touching(1971), came to the conclusion after years of observation and research that tactile stimulation is a fundamental factor in healthy human development. He noted that when we deprive an infant of maternal touch and isolate infants from maternal behaviour such as stroking, gazing, talking in sotto voice, carrying and holding, development can be delayed and even arrested altogether. The pediatrician Marshall Klaus and his wife Phyllis, a marriage and family counselor, wrote The Amazing Newborn (1998) after demonstrating the benefits of full body contact for premature and term newborn infants, as well as the benefits of Doula support for women in labour. It was found that when a woman in labour is supported continuously by a birth companion (and some midwives provide this function for their clients)… labour was easier, the birth was shorter and the mothers bonded better with their infants. Marshall Klaus first used the word ‘bonding’ to describe the set of interactional behaviours that occur straight after birth when a mother and baby are left undisturbed and in skin to skin contact. We now know that a cascade of hormones are released before during and after birth that enhance the attachment behaviour between mother and infant (Pedersen, 1992; Uvnas Momberg, 2003).
Edward Tronick (1992) of the Harvard Medical School has studied touch patterns amongst hunter-gatherer societies and found that parents in these societies carried their infants up to 50% more in the first 6 months of life. He also studied touch patterns and face to face communications between mothers (and fathers) and their infants and has come to the conclusion that touch is a critical component of mutual responsiveness and how the infant comes to know himself and others (Tronick, 1978, 1989).
Another researcher Dr Saul Schanberg from Duke University studied the neuroendocrine effects of touch deprivation and found that separation of the infant from the maternal matrix reduced the secretion of the growth hormone in infants. The implications for infants in orphanages who are seldom touched are at last beginning to be understood. Touch in infants has also been associated with a preference for particular smells (Coopersmith, 1984, 1986) while social and tactile deprivation is associated with a drop in immune function and later anti-social behaviour (Bowlby, 1969; Suomi, 1972, 1983). It appears that prenatal life, around the time of birth and the early years of life is a critical time for nurturing our capacity to love as humans.