How kangaroo care came to the United States: One mom’s journey

Chris Clark was 23 weeks’ pregnant, on bed rest after her water broke, and had been given little hope of having a viable pregnancy.

A mom of three kids already and a natural protector, she wondered, if her child was born, was there something she could do to enhance his chance of survival? Bed rest gave Clark, who had a background in respiratory therapy, time to research.

She landed on an article in the magazine, Mothering, about kangaroo care in Colombia. Kangaroo care is the practice of holding your newborn baby skin to skin, which provides benefits to both the parents and the child. It helps premature babies develop. At the time – 1989 – kangaroo care wasn’t being practiced in the United States.

“I read the article through and thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, they’re holding babies skin to skin and the babies are doing better,’” she said. She contacted a researcher listed in the article, shared her condition with her and asked for medical literature supporting kangaroo care. The researcher sent the information overnight – she doubted Clark had much time before delivering.

Hours after getting the literature, Clark was rushed to United Hospital where she gave birth to Danny, who arrived at just 29 weeks on May 7, 1989. He was taken to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota in St. Paul.

Danny, born on May 7, 1989

As soon as Danny was born, Clark started asking the neonatologist, Dr. Mark Mammel, if she could try kangaroo care.

“I was interested and also cautious. Maybe it’s growing up in the ’60s, but it seemed like a good idea. Parents holding babies – rocket science? No. But we all worried about the issue of temperature control, monitoring, airway obstruction, and so on,” Mammel said.

Clark persisted. “I asked every day if we could please, please try it,” she said.

Five days after giving birth on Mother’s Day, Clark held Danny for the first time. There were two crash carts and two resuscitation teams nearby – ready in case anything went wrong, she said.

“It was crazy. (Some of the staff) appeared terrified,” she said.

But the minute Clark started holding her son, terror and fear disappeared. She found only comfort and connection.

“It made me feel like his mom,” she said. “It was like I was in my own world with him.”

“Chris was very smart about the process. She initially saw the technique mentioned in a magazine…which I was familiar with as a fringe publication. It was not a great source for me to rely upon. Chris knew this!” Mammel said. “She gathered the actual medical literature – though there wasn’t much – and brought it to me and the group to review. Like all change in a NICU setting, a champion is needed to bring others along. I liked what I read – kangaroo care looked safe and probably beneficial, as well. So I became that champion, working with my partners and the nursing staff to pave the way for Chris to be the first.”

Clark holds Danny skin to skin

Initially, Clark spent about 30 minutes twice a day using kangaroo care.

Danny ultimately spent about nine weeks at Children’s. During that time, he needed nine blood transfusions, experienced numerous spells where he stopped breathing, and early on required a ventilator and 100 percent oxygen.

Prior to leaving, Danny required hernia surgery. Clark held her son for about 24 hours before the operation.  The anesthesiologist visited afterwards to tell her Danny was the “most relaxed baby” he had worked with in his years of surgery.

Danny just turned 24. He’s run a marathon, has no lung or sight problems and is a singer/songwriter, Clark said.

“I believe Danny is who he is because of kangaroo care,” she said.

Kangaroo care is now a standard practice at Children’s and beyond.

“I’m a fairly strong advocate and a fighter for what I think is best for my kids. The fact that it has helped other kids feels like this might be the purpose of my life and, It’s enough,” Clark said. “I was blessed to have enough people that believed in and supported us.”

Today marks International Kangaroo Care Awareness Day – a day we celebrate at Children’s.

“We had always seen ourselves as ‘family-friendly’ – trying kangaroo care was a way for us to really walk the walk. We became recognized around the country for this, though it was never a focus of our research efforts. Others took on that task,” Mammel said. “Today, all our families benefit from this practice, which is as routine as turning on the lights in the morning.”

5 thoughts on “How kangaroo care came to the United States: One mom’s journey

  1. Marlene Fondrick

    Special thanks to Dr. Mark Mammel and Jane Persoon, the nursing leader at the time, for listening to families and making changes that improve the experience of care for patients and their families. That’s what makes Children’s a special place.

  2. Tracy Flannery

    I practiced kangaroo care with my son who was born early weighing only 2.5 pounds. I immediately felt him relax and his breathing became regulated. It was not only good for him but was wonderful for me as well. I felt as though I was helping to keep him calm and it made my worries ease. I felt so connected with him and it seemed as though it was a continuation of the closeness I felt with him in my womb. Wonderful practice!

  3. Leta Powell

    Our daughters were both at St.Paul Children’s hospital. Megan 4/8/87 born at 34 weeks 5#3oz. Angela was born 12/17/91 born at 26 weeks 1#15oz. With Angela we were able to kangaroo her. I was able to do this for the first time on Christmas Day. It was the best Christmas present I could have received. Kangaroo visits helped her progress and grow. It helped me feel more and more like her mom. Angie was in a commercial for Children’s showing Kangaroo care. She was still in the hospital when it was taped. Thank you Chris Clark for paving the way for all of the families behind you! And Thank you to all of the Doctors and nurses and everyone else who helped us so many years ago! We have never forgotten what you have done for us! My girls are now Amazing young women.. And to you I will always be grateful!
    Leta Powell

  4. Jill Bergman

    Well done to a brave and determined mother who collected the science and insisted on holding her baby in skin to skin contact! and well done to doctors and nurses who were prepared to believe our biology and let her try.
    Skin to skin contact has profound effects on premature babies’ stability and maternal-infant bonding. The neuroscience shows that skin to skin contact needs to become standard practice for all neonatal care

  5. Nichole Priestley

    I grew up down the country road from the Clarks and spent many summer days on their farm playing make-believe games and learning how to enjoy childhood without cable tv and video games. I remember when Danny was born and what a miracle baby he was. It is wonderful to see this family, especially Mrs. Clark, highlighted and honored in this article. Each and every member of the family is an exceptionally unique and a inspiring individual…it was truly a blessing and a gift to be a young child in their home. Many of the natural parenting tools I now use as a mother were originally taught to me by observing Chris more than 20 years ago. She truly is an amazing, intelligent, and trail-blazing woman. It does not surprise me AT ALL that she inspired an entire movement in the medical field that has affected infants and parents on such a grand scale. Chris, you are the spirit of mother who would embrace the world if you could reach…but what you have done has gone so much further than arms could hope to extend. It is an honor to have had my life touched by you.

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