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A University of South Australia study examining how dads bonded with their premature babies in a neonatal clinic has confirmed the benefit of skin-to-skin contact in the early weeks of life.

Researchers documented the experiences of a group of fathers holding their premature babies against their bare chest in the pouch-like position, known as ‘kangaroo care’, or KC, which mimics the marsupial model where a joey finds warmth and security within the pouch, close to the mother’s heart.

The caregiving model is replicated in neonatal wards across the world, typically with mothers holding their newborns against their bare skin for as long as possible each day to nurture neurodevelopment and bonds.

Researchers say that while the benefits of mother-infant ‘kangaroo care’ are globally recognised, there is little data on whether fathers and their infants achieve the same outcomes using the method.

Registered nurse and UniSA Masters’ candidate Sophia Dong says that while mothers are still considered the dominant KC providers, changes to traditional family structures in recent decades have meant fathers have long been overlooked.

“We know that kangaroo care provides a variety of benefits for pre-term, low birth weight infants, including lower mortality rates, reduced infections, higher rates of breast feeding, calmer babies and enhanced bonding,” Ms Dong says.

“It also reduces parents’ mental stress caused by premature babies in neonatal intensive care units (NICU) being separated from their parents.”

According to the study, Exploratory study of fathers providing Kangaroo Care in a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, fathers who took part in the study reported a “silent language of love and connection” with their infant when they adopted the ‘kangaroo care’ model.

For example, first-time father Joel Mackenzie reported feeling an instant connection with his 540-gram daughter Lucy when he held her against his chest two weeks after she was admitted to the NICU at the Women’s and Children’s Hospital in Adelaide.

“Holding her for the first time was one of the best experiences of my life. I felt she knew that her daddy was protecting her and nothing bad was going to happen from then on,” Mr Mackenzie says.

“It’s a chance that most fathers don’t get, and I thought it was important for her development. I was able to hold her for a couple of hours each day and I think that helped her get to know me and vice versa. It was good therapy for me, too, because I felt that I was contributing rather than just being a bystander.

“Lucy settled onto my chest immediately and would hold my hand and pull my chest hair. It was reassuring that she was strong and that she knew my smell. It made me feel more loved than I have by any other person on this planet.”

During KC, the skin-to-skin touch activates nerve receptors in mammals that spark certain hormones, reducing pain and stress for the baby and caregiver, researchers say.

“A child has an innate need to connect with one primary attachment figure which is generally the mother. However, fathers are playing a much larger role as caregivers, including as single parents and same-sex parents,’ Ms Dong says.

Paid paternal leave policies are also encouraging fathers to care for their babies and develop a father-infant attachment as early as birth.

“The fathers described the NICU environment as “overwhelming” initially, causing them to feel anxious and powerless, but the close contact with their baby through KC fostered strong bonds with their infants. This in turn relaxed them, built their confidence and made them very happy.”

Read the full study here