The human touch is important. One person touching another, skin to skin, may be most important when establishing a bond between a mother and her newborn child. This form of intimacy is affectionately called kangaroo care after the way a mother kangaroo keeps her babies pouched right next to her skin until they’re ready to face the world independently. Such care is important to all babies but a recently published study indicates it may be especially important for babies born prematurely and the benefits seem to carry forward long into the preemie’s childhood.

The January 1, 2014, print issue of the medical journal, Biological Psychiatry, carries the full report of the study that began ten years ago.

For the study, psychology professor Ruth Feldman and her colleagues at the Bar-Ilan University in Israel enlisted 146 women who had just given birth to premature babies. The women were divided into two groups of 73 mothers in each, with women and children of similar characteristics (parents’ age and education, baby’s gestational age and weight at birth, etc.) in each group.

One group of new mothers spent one hour every day for fourteen days snuggling with their newborn babies, skin to skin. The second (control) group did not use this kangaroo care form of intervention; instead, their children spent fourteen days in an incubator, which was standard preemie care at the time. The mothers and children reported back for follow-up observation at intervals throughout the ten-year study period.

Analysis at the ten-year mark indicate the children who received the touch-based care fared much better mentally, physically, and emotionally than those confined to an incubator. The mothers enjoyed the benefits of the therapy, too.

In infancy, the kangaroo care kids benefited from increased autonomic functioning measured by respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA) and stronger attachment behaviors. At 6 months, these children were found to have more highly advanced cognitive development and executive function than those not getting kangaroo care at birth. At age 10, these children demonstrated better regulation of their heart rhythms, stabilization of their sleep-wake cycles, and more appropriate responses to stressful stimuli.

The mothers giving the skin-to-skin bonding reported less anxiety after childbirth, were more closely attached to their children at age 10, and enjoyed a more tightly bonded reciprocal relationship with their child than the mothers in the control group.

Previous studies have suggested premature birth disrupts development of the brain and other body systems that may rely on stimulation from the mother’s body for optimum maturation. It is believed the prolonged intimate touching provided by kangaroo care recreates the environment of the womb in ways that benefit the child during infancy and well into childhood.

Source: Feldman, Ruth, et al. “Maternal-Preterm Skin-to-Skin Contact Enhances Child Physiologic Organization and Cognitive Control Across the First 10 Years of Life.” Biological Psychiatry. Elsevier Inc. Oct 7, 2013. Web. Jan 15, 2014.