Kangaroo Care in the NICU

Jax was born too early.

His eyes were fused shut. He couldn’t breathe without a ventilator. His skin was translucent and so thin it could rip. His ears were not completely formed yet. His arms and legs were like fragile twigs.

Jax minutes after he was born. He's wrapped in a plastic bag to help keep him warm.
Jax minutes after he was born. He’s wrapped in a plastic bag to help keep him warm. To give you an idea of scale, that is the nurse’s hand and index finger near his head.

Having our baby boy at 23 weeks 3 days gestation was the scariest time of our life. We did not know if he was going to leave the hospital or not. So, we did the only thing we could do – we loved him. We sang to him and read to him. (Although, the first time I tried to read him a story, I started crying and couldn’t finish.) We touched him as much as possible through the incubator portals.

And then something amazing happened: we were able to hold him! (I’m not sure if we were allowed to do this because Jax was getting stronger or because the nurses weren’t sure he was going to make it.) But when Jax was 14 days old, we did our first Kangaroo Care. Kangaroo Care is where parent’s hold the baby skin-to-skin. Our nurse placed Jax, clothed only in a diaper, on our chest and then covered him with warm blankets.

This was an extremely big deal! It took at least two nurses and a Respiratory Therapist to make the transfer from isolette to our arms. It usually took about 20 to 30 minutes to get Jax prepared for the big adventure. The nurses would untangle all his wires, make sure the ventilator was secure, and check him for signs of distress.

Then once we got him in our arms, they had to make sure his airway was open and that he was getting enough oxygen. The most important part was making sure his ventilator tube was in the correct position; they would tape it to our arm or the chair to make sure it did not move. We could not move or change position at all when we were holding him – the slightest movement could kink the tube and cause a spell where his heart rate would drop and his oxygen levels would plummet. Spells happened quite a bit at first – trust me, holding your baby while you watch them turn blue is not a very pleasant experience. But. The positive aspects far outweighed the negative.

This healing touch is very powerful. Studies have shown (and we saw first hand) that Kangaroo Care can help a baby:

  • Regulate his body temperature
  • Even out his heart rate
  • Reduce the level of oxygen support needed and even out breathing patterns
  • Gain weight
  • Spend more time in deep, healing sleep
Daddy and Jax during their first Kangaroo Care
Daddy and Jax during their first Kangaroo Care

The doctors recommended that we hold him for at least one hour at a time to give him a chance to complete a full REM sleep cycle. After he got stronger, we were able to hold him for as long as we wanted!

Not only did Jax respond extremely well to Kangaroo Care time, but it was also healing for me and Steve. We felt more “in charge” of our baby. We were able to bond and connect with him. We were able to give him kisses. We were able to feel his tiny body, his wiggles, his breath, his heartbeat. We were able to connect with him in a way that was impossible to do through the plastic walls of his isolette.

We believe deep down in our hearts that Kangaroo Care helped Jax live. 

Mommy and Jax snuggling close
Mommy and Jax snuggling close

Unfortunately, throughout our journey, we’ve learned that many parents don’t have the option of Kangaroo Care. Many times, it’s because the NICU policy prevents parents from holding their tiny or sick babies. Other times, parents did not know to ask for it and they were not offered it by their nurses. I’m so sad to know that there are scared parents and babies out there that don’t get the benefits of healing touch! It is my hope that eventually all NICUs and hospitals will embrace healing touch and Kangaroo Care as viable and important medical treatments.

If you had a baby in the NICU, were you given the opportunity to do Kangaroo Care? Were there restrictions on how much and how often you could do it? Did you have to ask to do it or did your nurses offer it to you? I’m curious about your experiences with Kangaroo Care! Will you share your story with us in the comments?