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Cuddle therapy? How it improves preemies’ health

Cuddles may strike some as hardly a health care must for newborn babies. Food and warmth are essential. Cuddles? Hardly. But a new study shows that so-called kangaroo care has remarkable benefits for babies born prematurely.

As reports, kangaroo care, where parent holds a child with skin to skin contact, however briefly, is the norm today in most of the world. But that wasn't the case in the 1990s. Back then, it was believed that it was better for preemies to be kept out of parents' arms to avoid the risk of germs. That allowed Ruth Feldman, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv, to examine the benefits of cuddles, essentially.

In 1996, Feldman began looking at two sample groups of 73 babies each. The sample groups were from different hospitals in Israel. At one hospital, babies did not receive kangaroo care. At the other, mothers held their babies for one hour a day for 14 days.

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"Today, withholding KC from one group of preemies would be an ethical issue. Back then, though, the benefits weren't proven, so we just asked one hospital if we could introduce it there," Feldman told Time.

The study was conducted again in 1998, this time switching hospitals to make sure that couldn't be a variable to explain the study's findings. The babies, who had an average gestational age of 30 weeks and average weight of 2.8 pounds, were examined at three, six, 12 and 24 months old. Feldman and her team also followed up with the children when they were five and 10 years old.

The study, published in the journal Biological Psychiatry, indicates that those babies who received kangaroo care were shown to have better sleep patterns than those who did not, along with a range of other benefits. These include steadier respiration and heart rates and a better affective attention.

Kangaroo care had lasting benefits, as the follow-ups at ages 5 and 10 showed, with those kids better able to deal with stress.

"Every mammal has to be cuddled and in close proximity with its mother in the first days and weeks of life," Feldman said. "This builds up the bodily systems that are sensitive to a physical presence."

When moms and babies cuddle, there's a rise in their levels of oxytocin, which is frequently deemed "the love hormone" because of its role in bonding. As well, cuddling seems to have a calming effect at the biological level.

Kangaroo care is today the standard in many if not most neonatal intensive care units around the world. But it is not the standard at all of them. This study is good reason to believe it should be.

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