Whether skin-to-skin contact has lifelong benefits for infants is still unknown, but new research suggests the technique known as “kangaroo care” — incubating a premature baby through maternal body heat — fosters physical and mental health benefits through a child’s 10th birthday.

Researchers from Bar-Ilan University have found that mothers who care for their premature babies through kangaroo care (KC) confer a raft of psychological and cognitive benefits, such as more organized sleep and better stress responses, which extend into the fragile stage of adolescence. Such a finding may have implications for how physicians advise the mothers of premature babies in caring for their newborns.

"In this decade-long study, we show for the first time that providing maternal-newborn skin-to-skin contact to premature infants in the neonatal period improves children's functioning ten years later in systems shown to be sensitive to early maternal deprivation in animal research," researcher Dr. Ruth Feldman said in a statement.

Feldman and her colleagues recruited 73 mothers to practice the skin-to-skin rearing method, which was originally developed in 1978 Colombia as an alternative to the shortage of working incubators. These mothers held their children close once daily for 14 straight days. Meanwhile, the team monitored 73 infants who received standard incubator care, tracking both groups’ progress at seven intervals in the first 10 years of the children’s lives.

Within the first six months, differences had already begun to emerge. Mothers in the KC group showed greater outward displays of maternal behavior with their children who themselves demonstrated stronger cognitive skills than those of the incubator group. These also included exercises requiring control and executive abilities, which the researchers observed all the way through the first 10 years.

At 10 years old, the KC-raised children were leaps ahead of the children raised in incubators. They had better sleep patterns and neuroendocrine responses to stress, more mature functioning of the autonomic nervous system, and better cognitive control, suggesting to researchers a direct link between maternal contact and the raft of psychosocial benefits bestowed upon their children. “This study reminds us once again of the profound long-term consequences of maternal contact," commented Dr. John Krystal, editor of Biological Psychiatry, where the study was published. "The enhanced level of stimulation provided by this contact seems to positively influence the development of the brain and to deepen the relationship between mother and child."

As more than one in eight children born in the United States each year are premature, finding ways to reduce children’s risk of death and disorder remains urgent. A birth is considered premature if it takes place before the 37th week of gestation. Overweight women, women who have delivered preterm before, and women who abuse alcohol and drugs while pregnant face a greater risk for premature delivery.

If such a delivery arises, Feldman says, mothers should consider KC as a viable method of care, as it has an “easy-to-apply intervention with minimal cost” and a “multi-dimensional long-term impact on child development,” which, Feldman argues, “calls to integrate this intervention in the care-practices of premature infants across the world."

Source: Feldman R, Rosenthal Z, Eidelman A. Maternal-Preterm Skin-to-Skin Contact Enhances Child Physiologic Organization and Cognitive Control Across the First 10 Years of Life. Biological Psychiatry. 2014.