Why Skin-to-Skin Contact Is Important for Your Baby
Skin-to-skin contact, or "kangaroo care," is often recommended to help a newborn baby adjust to the world outside the womb. A doctor or midwife will place the baby on the birthing parent's bare chest immediately after birth, whether it was a vaginal or cesarean delivery.
It was in the early 1970s that Ohio researchers began looking into the benefits of what they called "extra contact," as it was (and still is) common practice in some countries to separate mothers from their babies immediately after birth in order to check them over.
A few years later, skin-on-skin contact was investigated in Bogotá, Colombia. When doctors didn't have enough incubators for premature babies, they placed them on their mother's chest to allow them to be warmed by direct contact with their body heat. It was a hugely successful idea, as the babies maintained their temperature and began to thrive.
The researchers in Bogotá coined this approach "kangaroo care." It's also called "kangaroo mother care" or "skin-to-skin contact," and has benefits to both the baby and the new parents.
The benefits of kangaroo care
Jorge E. Perez, M.D., a neonatologist and cofounder of KIDZ Medical Services, explained that "skin-to-skin contact provides brain stimulation to a newborn, which leads to physical, emotional and social development."
He described a host of immediate benefits, such as effective body temperature maintenance, less crying, the stabilization of heartbeat and breathing, higher blood oxygen levels and thermoregulation.
Benefits that come later, according to Perez, are better absorption and digestion of nutrients, improved weight gain, more effective brain development, parental attachment, deeper sleep, calmer alert states and a stronger immune system.
Scientists have found skin-to-skin contact aids the release of oxytocin (the love, or bonding, hormone), which has a variety of benefits to the mother, including a more positive breastfeeding experience, increased milk supply, reduced bleeding after birth and a lowered risk of postpartum depression.
"[Oxytocin] is the hormone of so many important things, including nurturing, bonding, healing and let-down in breastfeeding," said Mindy Cockeram, a birth educator trained by the National Childbirth Trust.
'Bonding and attachment are an integral part of parenting, and skin-to-skin with the partner will help those formations.'
This extended contact can have unexpected long-term benefits for the birthing parent. "Research indicates that the mothers of babies held skin-to-skin show more confidence in carrying their baby and breastfeed longer," Perez explained.
The benefits for both parent and baby are emotional as well as physical. "Skin-to-skin can help calm a distressed baby who is in pain, frightened or sensitive to a number of other factors," Cockeram said.
Because kangaroo care reduces stress, Cockeram often recommends it if the baby goes on a nursing strike and refuses to latch. Skin-to-skin can be a great stepping stone to breastfeeding, as the "birthing parent gives off a smell ('milk perfume') that can help to stimulate the baby's appetite," she added.
It's not just the mother or birthing parent who can benefit from kangaroo care—the other parent or close friends and relatives can, too. "Bonding and attachment are an integral part of parenting, and skin-to-skin with the partner will help those formations," Cockeram said.
Best practices for skin-to-skin contact
"The best way to practice kangaroo care after the birth is to begin immediately by placing the naked baby on the mom's bare chest," Perez said. "Turn the baby's face sideways to keep the airway open and remain this way for at least an hour." Babies can get cold easily, so make sure to put a blanket over both the parent and child.
Parents can continue skin-to-skin contact throughout their stay in the hospital and when they get home. Perez recommends incorporating it into your daily routine, such as first thing in the morning or after the baby has had their bath. "Some experts recommend doing it for three months for full-term and six months for premature infants," he said. Doing it for one hour a day can allow for a full sleep and wake cycle, so they will feel calm afterward.
There are even shirts and tops available that allow a parent to engage in skin-to-skin contact without using their hands. For safety, "avoid covering the baby's head with a shirt or blanket and make sure you can see the baby when you look down," Cockeram advised. It's also important not to fall asleep with the baby on your chest and only practice skin-on-skin when fully awake.
While skin-to-skin contact has myriad unseen benefits, the most obvious is that it feels good for you and your baby. These beautiful moments of connection become something to treasure as your baby starts to grow beyond those hazy newborn days.