Skin-to-skin contact between fathers and their premature or critically-ill full-term babies can foster stronger bonds and improve outcomes amid the growing involvement of men in infant care, a study has found.
University of South Australia researchers have documented the experiences of a group of fathers holding their babies against their bare chest in a pouch-like position known as kangaroo care.
Kangaroo care mimics the marsupial model where a joey finds warmth and security within the pouch, close to the mother’s heart.
The skin-to-skin touch activates nerve receptors in mammals that spark certain hormones, reducing pain and stress for the baby and caregiver.
The model has been used in neonatal wards worldwide, typically with mothers holding their newborn for as long as possible each day, to nurture the neurodevelopment of infants and to help bond with them.
Registered nurse and masters candidate Sophia Dong said while mothers were considered the dominant kangaroo care providers, traditional family structures had changed and fathers had long been overlooked.
“We know that kangaroo care provides a variety of benefits for pre-term, low birth weight infants, including lower mortality rates, reduced infections, higher rates of breastfeeding, calmer babies and enhanced bonding,” Ms Dong said.
“It also reduces parents’ mental stress caused by premature babies in neonatal intensive care units being separated from their parents.”
The fathers who took part in the Uni SA study reported a greater connection with their infants when they adopted the care model.
First-time Adelaide father Joel Mackenzie said he felt an instant connection with his 540-gram daughter Lucy when he held her against his chest.
“It’s a chance that most fathers don’t get, and I thought it was important for her development,” Mr Mackenzie said.
“I was able to hold her for a couple of hours each day and I think that helped her get to know me and vice versa.”
“It was good therapy for me, too, because I felt that I was contributing rather than just being a bystander.”
Ms Dong said the importance of fathers being involved in kangaroo care was growing as men were now playing a much larger role as caregivers, including as single parents and in same-sex relationships.
She said paid paternal leave policies were also encouraging fathers to care for their babies and develop a father-infant attachment as early as birth.
“The fathers described the intensive care environment as overwhelming initially, causing them to feel anxious and powerless,” Ms Dong said.
“But the close contact with their baby through kangaroo care fostered strong bonds with their infants.”