It typically doesn’t take long for a newborn to find itself in their mother’s arms and up against her chest after birth. The benefits of babies receiving skin-to-skin contact — or kangaroo care, as it’s often called — are widely recognized by medical organizations, including The World Health Organization, American Academy of Pediatrics, and Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine. Most studies (reasonably) focus on mothers providing kangaroo care, and the data regarding dads is far more limited.
But babies — and dads — could benefit from fathers providing kangaroo care, says pediatrician Wendy L. Timpson, M.D., who has done extensive research on neonatal care, and who encourages dads to try skin-to-skin contact with their newborn. Because it doesn’t just have to be mom. “It's kind of an extrapolation, but there's no physiologic reason why the baby wouldn't receive all of the same benefits from essentially any other human doing this,” Timpson says.
Researchers at the University of South Australia recently backed up Timpson’s viewpoint with a new study on dads and kangaroo care. They interview fathers who used skin-to-skin contact with their premature newborn in the initial weeks of life and found that kangaroo care benefits preemies’ health and helps dads relax, be happier, and build their confidence. These are essential confirmations in light of societal discussions regarding paid paternity leave — give dads more time to kangaroo with their newborn! — and postpartum depression in men.
So how should dads approach kangaroo care, and what should they do if they’re having difficulty getting started?
The Benefits of Kangaroo Care
Earlier research focusing on moms has shown that the benefits of kangaroo care include increased breast milk supply and greater breastfeeding success. But kangaroo care has other physiological benefits that aren't limited to birth mothers.
“Holding babies to the skin with the birth parent, but even more broadly, with any other humans, has numerous immediate benefits, including stabilizing their vital signs,” Timpson says. “We've even seen that when parents hold their baby skin-to-skin, their two sets of vital signs — which are naturally a little bit far apart — start to meet in the middle.”
Because kangaroo care is a multi-sensory experience, it can also contribute to a baby’s brain development. Touch helps grow neural pathways, which accelerates brain maturation. And research shows that when parents kangaroo their babies, those kids spend more time in quiet sleep, which enhances organizational brain patterns while reducing infant stress responses.
Getting Comfortable With Kangaroo Care
Don’t feel guilty if kangaroo care feels like too much at first. There’s a lot to process in the first moments, days, and weeks of parenting.
Since kangaroo care is an intimate practice, it’s best not to force it. But if dads feel comfortable, Timpson encourages them to participate in kangaroo care while in the hospital.
“I always like to remember that it's okay for parents if they don't feel ready for it, especially in my NICU world where the babies are sick and small,” she says. “It’s understandable to be nervous when they've got these teeny tiny babies who sometimes have breathing tubes. But I often find when I give parents a little nudge and a little education around kangaroo care, that it's the first moment of relief that they have, because they get assurances that they aren't going to mess anything up.”
On the flip side, some dads jump at the opportunity to try kangaroo care after weeks of anticipation, but they have a hard time finding an opening while everyone is tending to mom and baby. It’s a situation in which dads can feel apprehensive about advocating for themselves and the chance to bond with their children.
“I think we often prioritize moms because we are also trying to support them with lactation. But that is certainly not to exclude anyone,” Timpson says. “Gentle inquiry is a great approach. Bring it up and ask questions, and politely keep asking. When dads can find their way to the right person willing to listen to them, that person will then keep an eye out for opportunities to participate.”
Fathers who aren’t inclined to speak up can look for natural opportunities to hold their baby skin-to-skin. Mom will need time to rest and recuperate following labor, so those quiet and private moments when hospital staff are tending to other patients make for great windows to hold and bond with your baby. And while not as private an environment, times when your baby is in the hospital nursery can also be an excellent opportunity to hold them.
For some dads, kangaroo care will feel natural. But don’t worry if holding a baby doesn’t feel totally comfortable at first. It’s a dance you’ll pick up in no time at all.