It was with great sadness that I read about the death of Dr. John Kennell on August 27, 2013 in Cleveland, OH. Dr. Kennell, a pediatrician and researcher, had a long history of contributions to the field of maternal infant bonding and attachment, especially at birth and in the early postpartum period
Every time a mother opens her arms to receive her newborn baby on her chest (in line with Lamaze Healthy Care Practice #6) at the moment of birth it is a credit to the work of Dr. Kennell and his colleagues, especially his longtime collaborator, Dr. Marshall Klaus. Dr. Kennell examined and researched the connection (both physiological and emotional) of the newborn and its mother. As a result of his research, the practice of separating mothers from their babies for hours or even days after birth has all but disappeared in the USA and many places around the world. Prior to Dr. Kennell’s work, little was understood about the newborn’s innate need to be close to and kept with its mother as it made the transition to life on the outside.
Our results reveal suggestive evidence of species-specific behavior in human mothers at the first contact with their full-term infants and suggest that a re-evaluation is required of the present hospital policies which regulate care of the mother and infant. (Klaus, 1970)
Additionally, Dr. Kennell helped clarify the importance of families connecting with their babies who did not survive or died shortly after birth. Suggesting that time to hold, examine, and say goodby to a baby who passed away was helpful in processing grief and coming to terms with their loss, has changed how stillbirth and neonatal death is handled in our hospitals. For babies who are in the neonatal intensive care unit, the importance of promoting mother-infant bonding and attachment is now recognized as a critical part of the care plan.
Dr Kennell’s research has caused hospitals to completely change the methodology of the birth and postpartum experiences for the babies born in there facilities, supporting contact during the first hours and instituting a “rooming-in” policy that allowed mothers and babies to stay together during the postpartum stay. Even NICU facilities are accommodating parents with couches that turn into beds right on the units, near the babies needing care special care.
These observations suggest that there may be major perinatal benefits of constant human support during labor. (Rosa et.al. 1980)
Dr. Kennell was one of the very first scientists to research and investigate the benefits of continuous labor support for birthing women, and along with Dr Klaus, Penny Simkin, Annie Kennedy and Phyllis Klaus, founded Doulas of North America, which later became DONA International, a well respected, worldwide doula organization committed to training both birth and postpartum doulas and providing a doula for every woman who wants one. Since being established in 1992, DONA International has certified over 8000 birth and postpartum doulas and has members in over 50 countries around the world. Many, many thousands of women have birthed with the support of doula, enjoying the benefits observed by Drs. Kennell and Klaus when they first started their research, and documented again and again since then; shorter labors, lower cesarean rates and reduced interventions. (Kennell, et. al. 1991)
If a doula were a drug, it would be unethical not to use it. – John Kennell, M.D.
Dr. Kennell was the co-author of several books, including “Bonding: Building the Foundations of Secure Attachment and Independence” and “The Doula Book: How a Trained Labor Companion Can Help You Have A Shorter, Easier and Healthier Birth.” as well as a goldmine of research papers. He was known for his gentle, caring and compassionate nature as well as his brilliant mind and wonderful sense of humor.
Please join me in extending the deepest sympathies of birth professionals everywhere, to Dr. Kennell’s wife, children and their families during this time of loss. The memory of this esteemed doctor will live on in the work we all do to improve the childbirth experiences of women everywhere. I am grateful that I have the chance to continue in some small way, the legacy of the brilliant contribution that Dr. Kennell made to women and babies worldwide. Dr. Kennell’s family has requested that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to DONA International or HealthConnect One. Dr. Kennell’s full obituary can be found here.
Please share in the comments section, the impact that Dr. Kennell’s work has had on you. He was very important to all of us.
Kennell, J., Klaus, M., McGrath, S., Robertson, S., & Hinkley, C. (1991). Continuous emotional support during labor in a US hospital. JAMA: the journal of the American Medical Association, 265(17), 2197-2201.
Klaus, M. H., Kennell, J. H., Plumb, N., & Zuehlke, S. (1970). Human maternal behavior at the first contact with her young. Pediatrics, 46(2), 187-192.
Sosa, R., Kennell, J., Klaus, M., Robertson, S., & Urrutia, J. (1980). The effect of a supportive companion on perinatal problems, length of labor, and mother-infant interaction. New England Journal of Medicine, 303(11), 597-600.
He is a featured speaker on this DONA International video. In it, Dr. Kennell
“If a doula were a drug, it would be unethical not to use it.” 1998
The Essential Ingredient: Doula
shares his great respect for the doula’s role in establishing a strong foundation for mothers and babies.
Our hearts go out to Dr. Kennell’s family, especially his wife Peggy. The family has asked that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to DONA International or HealthConnect One, which were his passions. Further details about how to make donations in his honor will be available on our website soon.
Rest in peace, Dr. Kennell. Thank you for all of the gifts you offered up to the world. Our lives are transformed because of you.