Passing from a comfy womb to the outside world is a major change for the newborn. Life outside the womb means the baby’s body now has to manage its own temperature, the digestive system needs to start up, the immune system faces new challenges and the baby is now exposed to a new environment. Of course, staying in the womb isn’t an option but some skin-to-skin contact with mom may help ease the transition.
Skin to skin contact, also known as kangaroo care, is laying a naked baby on the mother’s bare chest. It may first occur shortly after birth but some also continue through infancy. The baby can also be placed against the father’s bare chest. It was originally done for premature infants who did not have access to incubators but research has found that there are plenty of benefits for all infants.
Calm and Steady
Both babies and mothers appear to be calmer when skin-to-skin contact is started shortly after birth. It is likely due to hormones in mom and a familiar environment for the baby.
Because they are more relaxed, babies with skin-to-skin contact tend to have earlier and stronger signs of attention and exploration. They also tend to have longer times of quiet sleep in the first day. This means the benefits of skin-to-skin contact may last well after the initial experience.
Just the Right Temperature
Temperature in the womb is regulated by the mother’s body and stays steady. After the baby is born, the body will need to start making adjustments so that the baby can maintain the right temperature. This can cause some temperature changes in the hours after birth.
Skin to skin contact after birth is linked to better temperature control in infants. In fact, infants born early in areas without incubators are often placed on mother’s bare chest to provide an environment with the best temperature levels. The skin provides a surface of ideal temperature that is similar to the temperature inside the womb.
Part of our immune system includes the good bacteria that are present on our skin and intestinal system. These bacteria make it difficult for bad bacteria to attach and grow. The baby’s skin starts as a clean slate. Contact with the mother’s skin allows the mother’s good bacteria to pass to the baby’s skin. The growth of good bacteria can protect the baby from certain types of infection.
This protection is good for any newborn, but it can be especially important for babies who are born prematurely and those with weak immune systems.
The need to feed is a natural drive in most infants but there is a lot for the baby to manage in first few hours of life. The calming benefits of skin-to-skin contact may help the baby relax earlier so that the baby is ready to explore and move toward feeding. The contact may also stimulate hormones in the mother that support breastfeeding.
Most skin-to-skin contact after birth is continued until the baby has completed the first breastfeeding. Some experts feel that waiting to separate the baby until the first breastfeeding has occurred will help ease future breastfeeding and decrease problems like difficulty latching.
Your Birth Plan
Many hospitals now include skin-to-skin contact as a regular part of care after birth. In general, infants are placed on their mother’s bare chest soon after birth. The length of contact may differ but organizations like the World Health Organization (WHO) suggest contact continue until the baby completes the first breastfeeding, usually about an hour. Sometimes this process is interrupted for a brief time while the baby is cleaned and weighted, while others may leave the baby undisturbed. Talk to your doctor about your wishes before you go into labor.
Some medical situations can make it difficult or impossible for contact to start right away such as a cesarean section or health complications with the infant. If a cesarean section was done, the father can stand in for the mother. The baby may be placed against the father’s bare chest until the mother is ready. Some babies may need medical attention right after birth but skin-to-skin contact can be started when they are stable. Again, if your medical team knows your wishes ahead of time they can work to help you reach your goals.
Skin to skin contact may be continued on and off through the first few days or throughout infancy. Some parents find the skin-to-skin contact can help calm the baby but most moms and dads simply enjoy the bond they feel with their little bundles.
American College of Cardiology
American Heart Association
Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada
Early skin-to-skin contact for mothers and their healthy newborn infants. WHO reproductive library website. Available at: http://apps.who.int/rhl/newborn/gpcom/en/index.html. Accessed September 20, 2013.
Ferber S, Makhoul I.The Effect of Skin-to-Skin Contact (Kangaroo Care) Shortly After Birth on the Neurobehavioral Responses of the Term Newborn: A Randomized, Controlled Trial. Pediatrics. 2004 Apr;113(4):858. Available at:http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/113/4/858.full.
The Baby Friendly Inititative. UNICEF UK website. Available at: http://www.unicef.org.uk/BabyFriendly/Resources/Guidance-for-Health-Professionals/Learning-about-breastfeeding/Skin-to-skin-contact/. Accessed September 24, 2013.