How Skin to Skin Contact is Beneficial for Infants
When babies leave the safety and comfort of amniotic fluid and the padded walls of a womb they leave behind the only source of nurturance and environmental control they’ve ever known. We can’t recreate their fleshy cell in all ways but we can try to smooth the transition into this cold world of light and strange sounds with warmth and a loving embrace through skin-to-skin contact.
If you have a home birth this is immediate and hassle free but a hospital birth requires prior agreement on the part of the staff. Just be clear that you want your baby on your chest, skin-to-skin as soon as possible. It’s not an unfamiliar practice so there shouldn’t be any problems or complaints. Baby is placed, naked on the skin between mom’s breasts, a blanket covering both for warmth. The longer you can maintain this contact the better, up to 2 hours if possible. This is a very special time and a powerful moment of bonding between mother and child but the practice can be repeated often in the months to come with continuous benefits for both mother and child.
Dad can step in, too if there are birth complications and provide similar comfort. Later on contact with dad will allow baby to become even more familiar with more sounds and scents that will trigger a sense of security far into the future.
This comforting habit can be extended to other family members as well. Grandparents, aunts and uncles, anyone who can hold a baby securely can provide physical warmth and skin-to-skin contact to calm and comfort baby while mom takes a nap or a bath or a walk by herself. There are lots of good reasons to do this for both baby and adults. Some are backed by science, others are just abundantly clear to anyone who tries it. Let’s explore some benefits of using this method of comforting and carrying newborns and very young babies.
Holding a baby close with skin-to-skin contact is often referred to as Kangaroo care. Babies can be carried around with contact to the chest similar to a kangaroo in a pouch.
Baby’s birth is a big change for everyone who has been around for this pregnancy. There is suddenly a living being to embrace outside the anonymous belly bump. We all want to provide love and comfort to the newly emerged infant and the skin-to-skin method can soothe both the infants and their close relatives.
It has also been found that a baby’s desire to nurse can be stimulated by other people using skin-to-skin contact. This enables other members of the family to bottle feed baby while babysitting or while mom isn’t available or is unwell.
Familiar movements like rocking and walking and sounds associated with mommy’s presence can be soothing as well.
There are lots of good reasons to continue this kind of contact. Heart and lung functions are more normal and stable when held skin-to-skin, perhaps because of the proximity to mother’s heartbeat and the familiarity of her breathing patterns.
Babies can’t regulate their own body temperature through shivering or sweating so spending time against the skin of adult and helps maintain heat. This is also helpful with weight gain since babies don’t have to expend their own energy to stay warm.
During visits to the pediatrician when blood is sampled with a heel prick or shots are given we can diminish pain by holding baby skin-to-skin either during the procedure or soon after. Children experience less pain or are less concerned about pain when this method is employed.
Kangaroo care seems to make it easier for moms to learn to “read” their babies. Even infants can tell us when they’re hungry or full, when they’re uncomfortable or interested or want attention. This helps to develop a deeper bond between mom, who gains some confidence in her ability to provide what’s needed and baby, who feels more secure when his or her needs are being met.
It’s less stressful for both which contributes to improved health and happiness. Babies often show preferences for some sounds and sensations and early personality traits begin to reveal themselves. Mom can enjoy and learn from all of this more readily when they are closely bound.
Babies can also benefit from skin-to-skin contact during naps. It’s good for an infant to trust touch as well. Being held skin-to-skin by caregivers allows babies to develop a strong bond with other human beings. This is the basis of good future relationships for a child and the outside world.
Gentle infant massage can help accomplish this, too. There is enormous benefit for infants when they receive proper massage. It keeps the skin moist, improves circulation and stimulates nerve endings. This baby is growing and changing daily and massage also helps to ensure there are no rashes developing or discolorations that need attention. It is worth mentioning that there is a proper technique to prevent any damage or bruising.
Most children benefit from having someone read to them. They find it soothing when drifting off to sleep and it helps the brain develop whether they understand the story or not. This is yet another good opportunity for skin-to-skin contact that is particularly calming and increases a sense of security.
Many women use a sling or wrap or some other type of baby carrier to keep baby close throughout the day. There are traditional and modern carriers available everywhere and it’s best to choose the one that is most comfortable for baby and mom. For day trips and long outings you need proper weight distribution and comfortable straps to protect your own body and to ensure that you can carry baby for a long time without fatigue. Around the house you can hold the baby in just a diaper skin-to-skin against your chest wearing a bra or a tank top if needed.
Dad can enjoy plenty of babywearing, too and reap the benefits of holding baby close, enjoying the soft rhythm of an infant’s breath against his skin. Cuddle often and make it a part of the schedule.
These are a few simple rules for the type of sling and how to carry baby safely. If your baby carrier does not provide all of the following you should check to make sure you have followed instructions correctly or look into a different product.
TIGHT – slings and carriers should be tight enough to hug your baby close to your body. This position will be the most comfortable for you both. Any slack or loose fabric will allow your baby to slump down in the carrier, a position that can hinder baby’s breathing and pull on your back.
IN VIEW AT ALL TIMES – you should always be able to see your baby’s face if you look down. The fabric of a sling or carrier should not cover baby’s head so you have to open it to check on them. In a cradle position your baby should face upwards not be turned in towards your body.
CLOSE ENOUGH TO KISS – your baby’s head should be as close to your chin as is comfortable. By tipping your head forward you should be able to kiss your baby on the head or forehead.
KEEP CHIN OFF THE CHEST – a baby should never be curled so their chin is forced onto their chest as this can restrict their breathing. Check to be sure there is at least a finger width under your baby’s chin.
SUPPORTED BACK – in an upright carrier a baby should be held comfortably close to the wearer so their back is supported in its natural position and their tummy and chest are against you. If a sling is too loose they can slump in a postion that can partially close their airway. (Test this by putting your hand on baby’s back and press gently – they should not appear to “uncurl” or move closer to you when you do this)
A baby in a cradle carry in a pouch or ring sling should be positioned carefully with their bottom in the deepest part so the sling does not fold them in half pressing their chin to their chest.
The moments immediately following birth must be overwhelming for the infant. It’s cold and bright and incredibly loud compared with the previous accommodations. There are physiological and psychological responses happening, new sensations like breath in the lungs, eardrums vibrating, hands touching them and nowhere are the things to which they’ve become accustomed.
This is also the moment that the body begins to program a lifetime of behavior and the basis of future physical development. It appears that heart rate, oxygenation even an infants blood sugar levels will stabilize more quickly in the hours following birth if they are in contact with mother’s skin. These responses in addition to improved sleep will enable the brain to develop optimally. It is believed that skin-to-skin contact inspires a baby’s natural instincts to locate the breast for a first feeding.
Just as the bacteria in breast milk is good for baby, the bacteria on mom’s skin might have a beneficial effect. According to a recent study strains of Staphylococcus epidermidis emit a chemical that may protect us from some forms of skin cancer. Since this bacteria is shared by families it is most easily passed from mother to child through skin-to-skin contact.
Much is set in motion in the first few moments after birth and it only seems right to give the infant the reassurance of skin-to-skin contact with the person whose body is most familiar. Baby may not recognize mother’s voice in the same way an adult ear can but the tone and cadence of the sounds she makes will likely be comforting.
Baby’s body temperature matches mom’s and heart rate has a chance to stabilize as cries dissipate and breathing becomes normal. In the intimate embrace of mother’s loving arms, against her chest skin, the neurological changes and the behaviors they evoke begin in a perfectly secure environment. All mammals have a basic biological need to be held and nurtured in this fashion.
Research proves that skin-to-skin contact will provide better sleep for infants as well. Preemies experience less stress and sleep more deeply and longer, waking less often than those sleeping in incubators. There may also be an increase in weight gain for infants are kept warm in this way since they aren’t dependent on their own energy to regulate body temperature. They also have better breastfeeding rates that would explain better weight gain.
Studies have shown that skin-to-skin care during infancy will be beneficial for years to come. A long-term study in Israel revealed that that 10 year olds who had skin-to-skin care as babies exhibited better child cognitive development than those who didn’t. By 15 years old, preemies that received skin-to-skin contact with their mothers showed better brain functioning than those in incubators.
Babies who are in held skin-to-skin contact cry less. In a study, just 3 hours each day of skin-to-skin contact reduced infant crying by 43%.
This is an issue that is important for both mother and baby. Roughly 10%-20% of American mothers experience postpartum depression (PPD). Essentially, the hormones that usually cause maternal attachment and behaviors just don’t work properly. In nature, mammals cannot fend for themselves as infants so the female brain is triggered by hormones to follow certain maternal care-giving behaviors.
There are biochemical rewards in doing so but when the system fails we can use skin-to-skin contact between mother and baby to increase the hormones that influence attachment behaviors. Oxytocin levels in particular are raised during skin-to-skin contact. Oxytocin is known as the “love hormone” but it also increases relaxation and facial recognition as well. All of these could help to create the all-important bond between newborn and mother. Clearly skin-to-skin contact is an extremely good therapeutic practice.