After you give birth to your baby, the very first thing you’ll want to do is hold them in your arms. But certain things such as C-section deliveries, surgical procedures such as episiotomies, or even just newborn examinations and care routines can stand in the way of you holding your newborn directly after birth.
Rest assured, your baby will be placed in your arms as soon as (safely) possible for both of you, and there’s a key reason why: the benefits of skin-to-skin care. That early close contact can have lasting physical and emotional benefits for both mother and baby. Knowing the benefits can help you to make informed decisions about your labor and delivery care, as well as newborn care after baby arrives. So let’s unpack this important topic.
What exactly is skin-to-skin care?
Skin-to-skin care may also be referred to as skin-to-skin contact or “kangaroo care” — and it’s when an infant is placed on your bare chest, allowing for direct skin contact. It was first introduced in 1978 by Colombian neonatologists as a way to help infants’ survival chances despite the shortage of incubators in hospitals. And the human body proved a natural answer.
We have kangaroos — and other marsupials — to thank for the concept. When a kangaroo baby is born, they aren’t developed enough to survive outside on their own. Their mothers’ provide a safe haven in their pouch, which allows for direct skin contact, warmth, and protection. So, these doctors started instructing mothers (and fathers!) to do something similar: go home and hold baby on their bare chest as often as possible. What they saw was more than they hoped for: mortality rates dropped by 40% and babies were less dependent on incubators which helped hospital overcrowding issues.
Today, skin-to-skin care with baby is recommended right after birth, where the baby is dried off and laid directly onto the mother’s bare chest (and generally covered by a warm blanket). If you’d like to have a step-by-step guide on what to expect during the initial skin-to-skin contact after birth, UNICEF gives a great breakdown of it here.
What are the benefits of skin-to-skin care?
We already know your baby gets comfort from hearing your voice, smelling your scent, and feeling your heartbeat. Beyond that, research shows us that skin-to-skin care benefits can be physical, psychological, and physiological, and may even last a lifetime. Here’s a breakdown of all the good that early skin-to-skin care can do:
Benefits for the mother
- Increased oxytocin levels may help lower the risk of excessive bleeding and hemorrhaging after birth.
- If you have an epidural or C-section birth, maternal hormones that promote breastfeeding and bonding can slightly differ to mothers who have vaginal births. However, skin-to-skin care may help compensate for those differences, supporting that early bonding experience.
- Skin-to-skin care also promotes the lactation hormone (prolactin) in mothers, encouraging her breastmilk supply. This is often linked to babies being more likely to breastfeed more successfully and exclusively for longer periods of time.
- It can help lower stress levels immediately after birth, and if skin-to-skin care is continued at home, women can expect lowered stress and improved mental health for days and even weeks after birth.
Benefits for the father
- By participating in early skin-to-skin care father’s are able to feel more involved in baby’s care and help develop their parental role (something many fathers claim to struggle with at the beginning).
- The feeling of skin-to-skin care also helps reduce stress, boost self confidence, and increase self-esteem in both parents.
Benefits for the baby
- Newborn babies see a lowered risk of infection and mortality with early skin-to-skin care.
- Babies will experience a boost of oxytocin too! This feel-good hormone helps reduce stress and makes them feel more relaxed and safe, which can be especially beneficial for their transition into the world.
- Direct, uninterrupted skin-to-skin care helps them adjust to their new environment outside the womb, including regulating their heartbeat and breathing to match yours, body temperature, blood sugar levels, and oxygenation.
- Helping baby regulate their body temperature can mean they’re more likely to achieve healthy weight gain since less energy will be used to keep them warm or cool.
- It can also lead to baby being more likely to sleep better and spend less time crying because they’re more likely to feel comfortable, safe, and supported.
- Baby’s instincts during skin-to-skin care naturally encourage them to breastfeed, and if they’re able to self-attach that first time, it’s likely they’ll be able to successfully breastfeed later and experience fewer problems. If this doesn’t happen, do not worry. Feeding baby looks different for every mother-newborn pair, and breastfeeding is not an indication of success as a mother.
What about the long-term benefits of skin-to-skin care?
A review published in 2016 looked at all research on skin-to-skin care and examined the health and wellbeing of those children later in life. Although the results were not concrete (because it’s impossible isolate skin-to-skin care as the only influencing factor) there was valuable insight into the behavioral effects noticed in children who received “kangaroo care”.
One of the studies showed children who received skin-to-skin care after birth had fewer school absences and significantly lower aggression, hyperactivity, and externalization (projecting your feelings onto others) – showing how early skin-to-skin care could influence psychosocial development. Another study showed that “kangaroo care” children had improved cognitive abilities and healthier sleep habits than children who did not receive skin-to-skin care.
How to practice skin-to-skin care
The first few skin-to-skin bonding sessions should last for at least 1 hour or until the baby’s first feed. This should happen as soon as possible after birth as that first hour after childbirth is especially critical for both mother and baby. Generally speaking, you can do skin-to-skin care for however long you and baby are both comfortable.
If baby isn’t ready or comfortable being held, find ways to touch them that they enjoy – ‘hand hugs’ are one way you can do this. To do this, when baby is on their back, put one hand under the head and the other on their stomach or feet (avoiding stroking movements as this can feel overwhelming for babies). This way they can feel your touch and warmth but not feel too constricted if fussy. Some babies also enjoy having their feet held so try out a few different tactics and see what your baby enjoys or tolerates, and when in doubt, you can always ask your pediatrician for advice.
If your baby is in the NICU, the hospital will be able to tell you how often you’re able to have skin-to-skin care depending on baby’s condition. Often times, skin-to-skin care is a critical part of neonatal intensive care, and the healthcare professionals will be able to help you navigate this safely. Skin-to-skin care might even help them leave the NICU sooner rather than later, and has even been shown to be especially important for newborn brain development in these cases.
Some quick tips for staying safe with skin-to-skin care:
- You should stay completely awake the entire time while doing skin-to-skin care. If you are exhausted after birth (as you should be) it’s OK to ask for support from family members or healthcare staff.
- If you have any surgeries or treatments after giving birth, you’ll like be experiencing some pain. Take caution when holding your baby if you’re feeling intense pain or on pain medicines, as both of these things may make it harder to hold your baby safely.
- Always hold your baby in an upright position where their airway is not blocked, and in a way they can’t fall or become trapped. Monitor their breathing, chest movements, temperature, and skin color of the arms and legs to watch for anything unusual.
We’d love to know, did you know about the benefits of skin-to-skin care before reading this post? Please leave any questions below and our team of experts will do our best to answer them. If you have any skin-to-skin stories you’d like to share please join our private Facebook group, The Baby2Body Squad, as we’d want you to be part of the conversation!