As the world prioritizes social distancing to stop or slow down the spread of COVID-19, a new study demonstrates that mother-infant touch and contact are essential for optimal brain development in early infancy.

Kangaroo Care, a skin-to-skin, chest-to-chest method of caring for a baby, especially one who is premature, has been associated with promoting neurophysiological development, according to researchers at Florida Atlantic University. This method of caring emphasizes the importance of holding the naked or partially dressed baby against the bare skin of a parent, typically the mother.

New research is showing that extended use of Kangaroo Care can positively benefit full-term infants and their mothers during the postpartum period.

The longitudinal randomized, controlled trial investigated if Kangaroo Care influences markers of brain development and function in healthy, full-term infants. They focused on the potential association between Kangaroo Care and infant brain development, specifically measures of EEG (electroencephalogram) asymmetry/power and coherence, the researchers explained.

In addition to EEG patterns in infants, the researchers looked at basal oxytocin — the “cuddle” hormone — and cortisol reactivity — the “stress” hormone — in infants and their mothers. Oxytocin is the hormone associated with caregiving and affectionate behavior, while cortisol reactivity is implicated in the stress response system.

For the new study, researchers compared six weeks of Kangaroo Care to standard care during the first three months of life.

For the study, mothers assigned to the Kangaroo Care group were given a Kangaroo Care wrap called the Kangaroo Zak from the company Nurtured by Design. They also were taught proper procedures by a certified trainer at the prenatal visit.

Mothers were asked to use Kangaroo Care, skin-to-skin, chest-to-chest contact with their infants for one hour a day for six weeks. They were provided with journals to record the frequency of Kangaroo Care use.

Mothers in the control group — the standard care group — were given infant feeding pillows and journals and were asked to record infant feedings for six weeks.

Babies were fitted with a stretch Lycra cap to measure EEG activity during a five-minute quiet-alert state at three months. Oxytocin was measured by collecting maternal and infant urine, and infant cortisol reactivity was measured by collecting infant saliva samples before and after a mild stressor, the researchers reported.

The study provides evidence that the physiology of mothers and their full-term infants is influenced by obtaining Kangaroo Care training and utilizing it during the postpartum period, according to the researchers.

“We wanted to know if exposure to extended tactile stimulation using the Kangaroo Care method would increase peripheral basal oxytocin and suppress cortisol reactivity in the babies in our study,” said Nancy Aaron Jones, PhD, senior author, an associate professor, director of the FAU WAVES Emotion Laboratory in the Department of Psychology, and a member of the FAU Brain Institute (I-BRAIN). “We also wanted to examine if Kangaroo Care increases oxytocin levels in mothers, which has important implications for postpartum depression.”

Findings showed that the infants’ left frontal area of the brain — implicated in higher-order cognitive and emotional regulatory skills — appears to be stimulated from the Kangaroo Care method. In addition, the mother and infants showed increased oxytocin, along with decreases in stress reactivity, suggesting regulatory abilities are prompted by experiences with positive caregiving in infancy, according to the researchers.

The study’s findings indicate that Kangaroo Care training and the level of use by caregivers during infancy can favorably influence both neurodevelopmental trajectories and infant neurobiological functioning, the researchers added.

“Our findings across several studies demonstrate a link between the supportive dimensions of maternal caregiving behavior and left hemisphere neurodevelopment, with maternal warmth and sensitivity predicting greater regulatory abilities and secure attachment,” said Jones. “Full-term infants and their mothers likely benefit from the positive interactive experiences inherent in extended Kangaroo Care use.”

The study was published in the journal Infant Behavior and Development.

Source: Florida Atlantic University