Holding your newborn baby skin to skin has many immediate and long-term benefits. As well as regulating your baby’s heart rate and body temperature, skin-to-skin contact can help establish breastfeeding.
This article will look at the benefits of skin-to-skin contact and breastfeeding.
If you’re a new or expectant parent, you might have come across information about the benefits of holding your baby skin to skin immediately after birth. Holding your baby skin to skin gives him time to adjust to the environment outside the womb in a calm and relaxed state and encourages earlier initiation of breastfeeding.
When a newborn baby is held against his mother’s bare chest, the baby’s skin is colonized with the beneficial bacteria from his mother, which provide protection against harmful bacteria.
The World Health Organization recommends skin-to-skin contact between mother and baby immediately after birth and for both to remain uninterrupted for at least one hour. The practice is also supported by the baby friendly hospital initiative (BFHI) – a call for action for hospitals to provide environments that support breastfeeding and promote the wellbeing of mothers and babies.
Being separated from his mother increases a baby’s stress hormones. Most babies will be placed on their mother’s body in the delivery room immediately after giving birth. The baby will be placed on his mother’s chest immediately after birth unless the baby requires urgent medical attention .
Routine procedures for full-term newborns, such as weighing and measuring, can be put off until after the mother and baby have spent time skin to skin and the baby has finished his first feeding.
This special time immediately after birth is sometimes referred to as the ‘golden hour’.
You can read more about why the first hour is so important for mothers and babies in BellyBelly’s article 7 Huge Benefits of An Undisturbed First Hour After Birth.
Skin-to-skin contact is extremely important for premature babies.
Sometimes, premature babies require medical attention immediately after birth and are not able to be placed on their mother’s body immediately. In such cases, medical professionals make the decision to separate mother and baby based on what is most urgently needed to support both mother and baby’s health, and to address any immediate concerns there might be.
This does not mean that premature babies miss out on skin-to-skin contact. As soon as mother and baby are reunited, it will be the perfect time for that first, special skin-to-skin cuddle.
Skin-to-skin care (kangaroo care)
Kangaroo care is another term for skin-to-skin care. Kangaroo care can be done with pre-term or full-term babies and is often practiced in the hospital neonatal intensive care unit.
Kangaroo care (skin-to-skin care) has many benefits, because it:
- Regulates a newborn baby’s heart rate and blood pressure
- Maintains a newborn baby’s body temperature
- Preserves a newborn baby’s birth weight and promotes weight gain
- Supports a baby’s brain development
- Supports mothers as they initiate breastfeeding
- Helps mothers to establish a full milk supply
- Reduces stress hormones in both mother and baby
- Reduces the risk of postpartum depression.
A recent study on the practice of skin-to-skin care for preterm or low birth weight babies found an increased risk of mortality for small or sick babies who did not receive early skin-to-skin contact after delivery.
The randomized control trial involved an average of 17 hours per day of skin-to-skin contact, starting as soon as possible after birth.
Dr. Suman P.N. Rao, co-author of the study paper stated:
‘Kangaroo mother care is one of our most cost-effective ways to protect small and sick newborns. Now it is more critical than ever to ensure mothers are supported to do kangaroo mother care and that healthcare professionals feel safe and comfortable to support this lifesaving intervention’.
Holding your baby skin to skin
Begin by sitting in a laid back or semi reclined position. Place your baby on your bare chest between your breasts. Your baby can be completely naked or dressed in a nappy or diaper if that’s more comfortable for you. Holding your baby skin to skin will help your baby maintain his own temperature. If you are in a cold room, it’s also ok to put a light blanket over you and your baby.
In this position, your baby might or might not begin breastfeeding. The more often you hold your baby with skin-to-skin contact, the more likely he is to initiate breastfeeding on his own.
Babies are born with an instinct to seek their mother’s breasts and begin breastfeeding. This is a newborn survival skill. By holding your baby skin to skin, you are encouraging him to practice this instinct.
By allowing your baby to seek the breast and attach himself, you are also encouraging him to practice a deeper latch. Getting a deep latch is important for successful breastfeeding. It allows for the maximum amount of milk transfer per feed, maintains and establishes a full milk supply, and avoids early nipple damage in breastfeeding mothers.
The earlier breastfeeding is initiated after birth, the more likely exclusive breastfeeding will be achieved. Skin-to-skin contact is associated with a longer duration of exclusive breastfeeding.
Baby led attachment
Baby led attachment is when your baby attaches to the breast himself. If given the opportunity, many full-term infants are able to attach themselves to their mother’s breast for their first breastfeed. If they are able to do this for their first breastfeed, it is very likely they will be able to do it again. This increases the likelihood of them being able to breastfeed exclusively.
You can read more about the benefits of baby led attachment in BellyBelly’s article Baby Led Attachment – The Big Benefits And How To Do It.
When a baby is placed skin to skin on his mother’s chest, he will begin to lift and bob his head around. You might notice that your baby starts to open and close his mouth, sticking out his tongue at the same time.
Babies sometimes move their hands towards their mouths and begin to mouth or lick their fists.
Your baby will continue to move his head and might start to make movements with his body towards the breast. Sometimes these movements can be subtle; sometimes babies will quite literally throw themselves towards the breast.
You can support your baby’s body towards your breast if he needs some guidance. Once his head is at the right level, he will open his mouth, anchor his chin to the breast and latch on to start breastfeeding. This might take a couple of tries before he get a secure attachment.
If he is having trouble attaching himself to the breast, line up your nipple towards his nose and stroke down gently to encourage him to open his mouth wide.
Most babies fall asleep after their first breastfeed. Depending on whether your baby was born pre or full-term, or if you had any medications in labor, your baby might need to be woken for his next feed.
Practicing skin-to-skin contact for every feed is beneficial in the early days of breastfeeding.
If you need breastfeeding support, seek professional help from a board certified lactation consultant.