You’ve probably heard about the importance of skin-to-skin contact between mother and baby.
An uninterrupted first hour is part of many mothers’ birth plans, but just what can you expect during that magical time?
When labour and childbirth occur without drugs or intervention, we are privileged to witness the most primal of infant instincts take place between a newborn and his mother.
Observation of this natural process by birth and breastfeeding experts has shown that healthy, full-term babies, who are unaffected by drugs, will follow a plan laid down deep inside their primitive brain – to seek the breast and attach all by themselves. Just like all other newborn mammals, they will instinctively move their whole body towards the nipple with this one goal in mind.
Babies go through a series of nine instinctive behaviours – in strict order – in a process that takes at least an hour from the moments after birth. Each stage has its purpose and place in the journey, as listed below:
Stage 1: The Birth Cry – Immediately After Birth
The sound which everyone holds their breath to hear. The birth cry is distinctive, as the baby draws his first breath into brand new lungs. He may cry as his body slides out of the birth canal or when placed onto his mother’s abdomen.
Thankfully, the old practice of holding babies upside down and slapping their bottoms to illicit this cry has been relegated to its place in history.
Stage 2: Relaxation – The First Minutes
After the initial cry, the baby quickly becomes quiet and still, as she enters the relaxation stage. As he rests against his mother’s body, he might be covered with a warm, dry towel or blanket. His head should be left uncovered. While he rests, his temperature, heart beat and breathing will be regulated by his mother’s body – automatically and without conscious thought.
Stage 3: Awakening – Average 3 Minutes After Birth
Rested after the initial burst of energy, he now begins to take in his new environment. Just minutes after birth and breathing, he might move his head and shoulders, open his eyes and make some mouth movements.
Stage 4: Activity – Average 8 Minutes After Birth
As he begins to respond to the rooting reflex – one of several key reflexes present from birth – his mouth becomes active, with sucking movements and gaping movements as he begins to seek the breast.
Stage 5: Rest – Various Times
At any stage in this journey, he may take time to rest as he takes in his new world and processes the experiences he is having, each for the first time.
Stage 6: Crawling – Average 35 Minutes After Birth
Incredibly, he begins to move his body, ever upwards towards the breasts. Reflexes which will remain for the first weeks, help him “walk” as he pushes his feet against his mother’s belly – triggering her uterus to contract as he goes. He may take 30 minutes or more to make this important journey, smearing amniotic fluid as he goes – laying down the familiar scent as a path to follow later.
Stage 7: Familiarization – Around 45 Minutes After Birth
Reaching the breasts – either one and sometimes both – he gets to know them by licking, touching and even massaging the breast tissue with his fists. His mother responds to this contact with a surge of oxytocin – the love hormone.
As well as beginning the bond between mother and baby, oxytocin also works to contract the uterus, expel the placenta and reduce blood loss. At the same time, it triggers the letdown reflex to release colostrum from the breasts.
The scent of the colostrum is known to him – it’s like that of the amniotic fluid. His eyes will gaze at the nipple and take his hand from his mouth, to the nipple, and back – despite not yet having hand-eye coordination. He might take 20 minutes or more to get to know the breast, before attempting the next stage.
Stage 8: Suckling – Around One Hour After Birth
Using his whole upper body, he finally launches towards the nipple in an attempt to latch. He swipes his mouth from side to side as he feels the nipple against his cheeks, until it’s in just the right spot and he attaches. Quietening, he suckles, taking the very first colostrum into his mouth, stomach and bowel. It will line his gut with protective bacteria, as his immune system faces the world for the first time.
Stage 9: Sleep – Around 1 ½ to 2 Hours After Birth
Finally, he sleeps. As does his mother, both experiencing the relaxing effects of oxytocin. Left undisturbed, mother and baby can rest after the birth. Weighing can wait until later, and any routine observations can be done while baby lays against his mother. Some mothers and babies will remain together this way for many hours after the birth.
In an ideal world, every birth would occur in such a way that this process would happen at the baby’s pace, uninterrupted.
The reality for many mothers and babies is that intervention is needed or demanded due to procedures or protocols. You may get moments or minutes of skin-to-skin before baby is taken to the nursery for observation, the mother is moved to theatre for stitching or other medical issues require separation of the two. It’s disappointing when plans cannot be followed, but do not despair:
- If baby isn’t stable enough to be monitored while skin to skin in the birthing room, it might be possible to hold him while he is observed in the nursery. If mama cannot be there, the other parent, grandparents, family or friends can take on this special role, holding the space for mother until she can take back her role.
- If mother needs to go to theatre for stitching after a deep tear or to have a reluctant placenta manually removed, baby’s other parent can snuggle the baby skin to skin and even feed the first colostrum from a small cup, syringe or finger, until mama is ready to try again.
- Many hospitals now have policies which support skin to skin in theatre after a c-section. Obviously, crawling up the mother’s belly is not an option but the naked baby can be placed across the mother’s chest, covered well to trap the heat generated by his mother (sometimes with bubble wrap or foil blankets, giving the whole process a festive appearance!) and mother and baby then remain unseparated, going to recovery together and finally, back to their room, where together they will be transferred to the hospital bed.
- Sometimes, baby or mother require longer separation – hours, days or even weeks before skin to skin contact is possible. It’s never too late – indeed, Kangaroo Care, the method of skin to skin used with premature babies, can begin even weeks or months after the birth, with many of the benefits still available to mother and baby.
Our babies come into the world prepared for what lies ahead. Instincts and reflexes guide them to seek the three things they most need: food, warmth and security. We are only just beginning to learn what newborns know and what they can teach us.
There’s nothing quite like a newborn baby. Find out why we love them so much in our article Best Things About Newborns – 10 Things We Love or see our article 9 Tips To Increase Your Chances Of A Natural Birth.