I never imagined I'd spend my first weeks as a mother pretending to be a marsupial. But there I was, sitting in the neonatal intermediate care unit at Jackson Memorial Hospital, hoping that a practice known as ``kangaroo care'' would help my preemie.
Every morning I'd put my 4-pound, 6-ounce son under my pouch-like sweater so that we were skin to skin, chest to chest, my body replacing his incubator as a heat source -- with the added benefits of human touch, soothing heart beat and familiar smell.
Finally, after days struggling to figure out how to handle this tiny baby who'd surprised me by coming weeks early, I'd found a way to be useful.
The benefits of kangaroo care were discovered accidentally in the late 1970s in Bogota, Colombia. Doctors grappling with a shortage of incubators and a high mortality rate decided to enlist mothers, instructing them to keep their babies warm by holding them skin-to-skin and to feed them breast milk.
The babies thrived, and the practice spread across the globe. In 2003, the World Health Organization published a guide on it. Studies have shown the closeness helps preemies sleep better, breathe better and regulate their body temperature and heart rate. All of this allows them to devote more energy to growing.
``Kangaroo care, to me, is the first gift you can give to your baby in the NICU and it's one of the greatest gifts the staff can give to parents in the NICU,'' says Liza Cooper, the national director of a March of Dimes program that supports families in neonatal intensive care units and promotes the practice among healthcare workers.
I learned about kangaroo care in a book about premature babies that I bought the day after I was discharged. It seemed like a good way to bond, if nothing else -- and a more appealing way to spend my time in the hospital.
Sitting next to a plastic box with your kid inside isn't much fun, but kangarooing turned out to be quite lovely. I adored feeling his scrawny body wriggling to get comfy, then the rise and fall of his steady breathing. I would talk to him, read comforting verses from the Koran and sing the few lullabies I could remember.
The Jackson staff was accommodating, and by mid-week, as word of the ``kangaroo mom'' spread in the unit, a nurse pointed me to some foldable recliners hiding in a nook that a doctor had donated to encourage kangaroo care -- a big improvement on our previous metal and plastic chairs. Thus began our truly marathon cuddling sessions -- a few hours in the morning, then a few in the evening.
Other hospitals are more proactive in telling parents about kangaroo care and encouraging them to do it. At Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, the practice is described in the NICU parent handbook and staffers talk to families about it as one of the ways they can help care for their baby.
``It's wonderful in terms of moms and dads being able to get as close as you can to your hospitalized babe,'' says Dr. Susan Dulkerian, the medical director at Mercy's NICU. ``Babies snuggle in and get comfortable and calm down and seem very, very content.''
By and large, neonatologists recognize the benefits of kangaroo care, says Dr. Jonathan Fanaroff, associate medical director of the NICU at Rainbow Babies & Children's Hospital in Cleveland.
But there's room for debate on when a premature baby is stable enough to be held -- some doctors draw the line when the baby's on a breathing tube, for example.
And Mercy's Dulkerian emphasizes that those who don't kangaroo shouldn't feel guilty.
``Ultimately you're going to get that bonding and that closeness,'' Dulkerian says. ``Even just being there, babies know.''