Kangaroo Mother Care — in which a premature infant remains in skin-to-skin contact with the parent’s chest rather than being placed in an incubator — may have lasting positive benefits on brain development, according to a new study.
Researchers at Université Laval found that premature infants who benefited from this technique had better brain functioning in adolescence than premature infants placed in incubators.
Earlier research showed that infants born before the 33rd week of pregnancy experienced more cognitive and behavioral problems during childhood and adolescence.
In the new study, researchers compared brain functions of 18 premature infants kept in incubators, 21 held in Kangaroo contact for an average of 29 days, and nine full-term infants.
To assess the brain functions of the children — now aged 15 — the researchers used transcranial magnetic stimulation. With this non-invasive and painless technique they could activate brain cells in targeted areas, namely the primary motor cortex that controls muscles.
By measuring muscle responses to the stimulation, they were able to assess brain functions such as the level of brain excitability and inhibition, cell synchronization, neural conduction speed, and coordination between the two cerebral hemispheres.
The researchers found that all brain functions of the adolescent Kangaroo group were comparable to those of the full-term infant group.
On the other hand, premature infants placed in incubators significantly deviated from the other two groups 15 years after their birth, the researchers said.
“Thanks to Kangaroo Mother Care, infants benefited from nervous system stimulation — the sound of the parent’s heart and the warmth of their body — during a critical period for the development of neural connections between the cerebral hemispheres,” said neurophysiologist Dr. Cyril Schneider.
“This promoted immediate and future brain development.”
Psychology researcher Dr. Réjean Tessier added that “infants in incubators also receive a lot of stimulation, but often the stimulation is too intense and stressful for the brain capacity of the very premature.”
“The Kangaroo Mother Care reproduces the natural conditions of the intrauterine environment in which the infants would have developed had they not been born premature. These beneficial effects on the brain are in evidence at least until adolescence and perhaps beyond.”