That first cuddle with your new baby is a magical time, but did you know it’s also an important time for your health and the health of your newborn?
There’s plenty of research to support the benefits of skin-to-skin contact immediately after birth and beyond.
It is said to impact positively on parent-baby bonding, breastfeeding and baby’s health.
So what exactly is skin-to-skin and why is it important?
What is skin-to-skin contact?
Skin-to-skin contact is when a naked baby is placed tummy-down on the mother’s bare chest. When this is done immediately after the baby is born there’s said to be many benefits for both mother and baby. If the mother isn’t available, there are still benefits for baby if they do skin-to-skin with their other parent or another person.
A mother’s bare chest is the perfect place for a new baby to recover from the stress of being born. It is a warm, comforting and peaceful place to begin life in the outside world.
Unless there’s a need for immediate medical intervention, the majority of babies should be able to rest on their mother’s chest for at least an hour after their birth.
What are the benefits of skin-to-skin contact?
- Calms and relaxes the mother and the baby
- Regulates the baby’s heart rate and breathing
- Stimulates digestion
- Regulates baby’s temperature
- Allows colonisation of baby’s skin with mother’s friendly bacteria, thus providing protection against infection
- Stimulates feeding behaviour
- Stimulates the release of hormones to support breastfeeding and mothering
- Skin-to-skin contact helps preterm babies to be more stable, maintain their temperature, fight infection, grow and develop better and be discharged from hospital sooner. This is also known as ‘kangaroo care’.
What is kangaroo care?
Kangaroo care is another name for skin-to-skin but usually used in the context of infants born prematurely.
Neonatal care units differ in their policies but kangaroo care is often practiced once the premmie baby is stable. Parents are able to hold their baby skin-to-skin and the practice is said to promote breastfeeding and result in earlier discharge from hospital.
Kangaroo Care is also said to benefit parents as it allows them to bond with their baby and gives them confidence in their parenting.
Skin-to-skin and the first breastfeed
Babies have been observed to follow a certain pattern leading to the first breastfeed. It takes some babies longer than others but if successful they are said to be more likely to recall this at subsequent feeds.
Skin-to-skin promotes this pattern and mothers who are able to have skin-to-skin immediately after birth are more likely to breastfeed for longer.
The process is:
- The baby will cry a distinctive ‘birth’ cry
- They will begin to relax and recover from the birth
- The baby will then start to wake up
- The baby will begin to make small movements of the arm, shoulders and head.
- The baby’s movement will increase and they will move closer to the breast
- Once the baby has found the breast they will rest for a while. Don’t confuse this with the baby not wanting to feed or not being hungry.
- The baby will then start to nuzzle into the breast before attaching.
- After suckling for a short while baby will come off the breast and sleep.
What about skin-to-skin after a caesarean?
There are factors that could limit early skin-to-skin contact after a caesarean. Even if the mother is awake during and after the procedure, using spinal analgesia, the hospital staff may not allow it for practical and medical reasons.
It is important that you talk to your obstetrician about skin-to-skin contact and what to expect after your caesarean as the policies will differ from place to place.
Sometimes of course the mother will be medically unavailable (if she’s feeling unwell or if she’s had a general anaesthetic). In these cases the father can step in and enjoy skin-to-skin with the newborn.
What about skin-to-skin with dads or partners?
Skin-to-skin can be a wonderful way for fathers or partners to bond with their new baby. In some cases, if the mother is recovering from anaesthetic or surgery, they can step in to provide that crucial early skin-to-skin contact.
Skin-to-skin with the father is said to reduce infant crying, calm the baby and facilitate the development of the pre-feeding behaviour.
Continued skin-to-skin can help fathers and partners to bond with the baby. The baby will learn to feel safe on their chest and the adult will learn to read baby’s cues.
Including skin-to-skin in your birth plan
Skin-to-skin contact is not always routine so if skin-to-skin is important to you, you must talk with your health care providers and let them know of your intentions.
It is a good idea to include your wish for skin-to-skin when writing your birth plan. If your baby is healthy and not requiring medical intervention then you should be able to have skin-to-skin contact for at least an hour after the birth. Weighing and dressing baby should not take precedence.
– Additional information taken from Unicef’s Baby Friendly Initiative