Skin-to-skin contact between parents and babies -- often called "kangaroo care" -- provides major benefits to preemies' hearts and brains, Australian researchers say.
They assessed 40 babies born about 10 weeks early with an average weight of 2.9 pounds. Normal birth weight is 6.6 pounds.
One hour a day of kangaroo care significantly improved blood flow to the newborns' brains and hearts, compared to when they were in an incubator, the study found.
Improving blood supply is important because it carries oxygen and nutrients to the brain and other organs, and promotes neurodevelopment, according to the researchers at Monash University in Melbourne.
They said their study, published recently in the Journal of Pediatrics, provides scientific evidence of kangaroo care's benefit for babies.
"This is a low-cost intervention, easily applicable to infants in neonatal units across the world, and helps the most vulnerable of the populations we care for," said study leader Arvind Sehgal, head of Neonatal Cardiovascular Research at Monash Children's Hospital.
While skin-to-skin contact is a common practice worldwide, concerns that may prevent its use include fear of infants getting cold or that small babies are unstable and might not tolerate this handling.
But infants in this study maintained their temperature one hour after skin-to-skin contact (SSC), according to the researchers.
They noted that previous studies have found numerous benefits with kangaroo care, including reduced infant stress and crying; increased parent-infant bonding; and lower stress and increased breast milk supply in mothers.
"SSC is perhaps the normal physiological state, while the stress response of being separated from parents is the status of the pre-term infants the vast majority of the time," Sehgal said.
"We hope this study encourages neonatal units around the world to promote kangaroo care, as well as reassure places where this is already being practiced that the effort and commitment from staff and parents is worthwhile," he added.
The March of Dimes has more on premature babies.