A Jump on Life

Kangaroo care provides newborns with skin-to-skin contact

Susan Ludington, PhD, RN, had just given a speech on infant stimulation to physicians in Texas in the mid-1980s when Colombia's minister of health approached her with a troubling problem: Too many premature infants were dying in his country.

For Ludingtonnow the Carl W. and Margaret Davis Walter Professor of Pediatric Nursing at Case Western Reserve's Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursingthe encounter gave her professional life a new focus.

She went on to help popularize what's now called "kangaroo care," which is skin-to-skin contact between a parent and newborn, particularly those who are premature or sick. Ludington said research shows that such contact stimulates the release of the hormone oxytocin in 14 areas of a baby's brain and is an effective way to stabilize newborns' heart and respiratory rates, improve oxygen-saturation rates, better regulate body temperature, enhance brain maturation, and prevent infections. She said the practice was first studied in 1972 by Marshall Klaus, MD (ADL '47, MED '51), and John Kennell, MD, both then with CWRU's School of Medicine.

Today, the United States Institute for Kangaroo Carethe center Ludington founded in 2010 at the nursing schoolremains an important resource for its nearly 1,300 members, who include neonatal, labor and delivery and post-delivery nurses, neonatologists and respiratory therapists.

Ludington said that few hospitals were willing to give kangaroo care a chance when she proposed a study in 1988. "I went to 18 [neonatal intensive care units] in Greater Los Angeles before I finally found one that agreed to let a premature baby come out of an incubator and rest against its mother's skin," said Ludington, who was teaching at University of California, Los Angeles at the time. "We had phe-nomenal success." Kangaroo care also has been shown to benefit full-term babies.

Ludington said she published her first article on kangaroo care in 1990 and was the first National Institutes of Health-funded researcher in the United States to study the impact of brain-based oxytocin release during skin-to-skin contact. Today, she said, almost every hospital in the United States has kangaroo care protocols.

— Andrew Faught