The Importance of Skin to Skin Contact Between Mother and Baby

You’ve heard maybe casually that babies need skin to skin contact with their mother after they are born. Or maybe you saw it in a movie or read it in an article. Well, it is true. Babies need to have physical contact with their mother after they are born and the benefits are both emotional, physical and even social. The time immediately after birth, mothers and babies should have direct skin contact for at least one to two hours. The baby should be naked (except for maybe a diaper) and placed on the mother’s bare chest. Then a blanket or Baby Quilts if you bought some new ones or had some specially made, should be draped over you and your baby. This skin to skin contact causes the baby’s temperature, heart rate, and breathing to stabilize. If the mom can’t do this, the dad can step in and do it too. So I’m sure you must be thinking; What is happening in the body of both parent and child when there is skin-to-skin contact?

Well, the mother’s body releases oxytocin which causes the baby to relax. On the behavioral level, if you have a baby that is more relaxed and sleeping better, that’s going to relax the mother more. The newborn is coming out of a very restrictive environment, so anything that simulates that comforts them. Being touched or hearing a heartbeat is familiar because they heard it in the womb.

And it doesn’t stop at birth. The benefits of skin-to-skin care during infancy may persist for years. And, developmental delay is common in children deprived of normal sensory stimulation. Touch has emerged as an important modality for the facilitation of growth and development. The positive effects of supplemental mechanosensory stimulation have been demonstrated in a wide range of organisms, from worm larvae to rat pups to human infants.

Aside from contact, what are some of the other early interactions between adults and infants that are important for development? Well, one of the things infants learn early in life is that their actions affect others’ responses—they sense that they’re active agents in their environment, so the world isn’t just a sound and light show. They learn that probably most readily through other people because people are responsive to babies. Babies catch on very quickly that their actions get a predictable response. What that means is that they start to learn that if they cry you will come running or if they touch you, you will look at them etc.

Now let’s list some known benefits that occur when there is skin to skin contact between mother and baby.

Stabilization of Body Temperature

As an adult, you can maintain or regulate your body temperature by sweating when hot and shivering when cold. When a pregnant woman does this, it also regulates the baby’s temperature. After the baby, is born, they do not yet have the ability to regulate their body temperature or adjust it to the environment and so having skin to skin contact with a parent does that. Studies have shown that skin to skin contact does a better job at keeping a baby warm than artificial warmers like electric warmers or wrapping them in blankets.

Improvement in Heart and Lung Function

Babies go through a dramatic transition after birth as they prepare to take their first breaths of air outside the uterus. Those held skin-to-skin by their mothers tend to adapt sooner than those who are not. They also tend to have heart and breathing rates that are both more normal and more stable. This benefit holds true with premature infants as well as babies born full-term. Perhaps the mother’s heart sounds and breathing patterns are familiar to the baby after spending time in utero.

Regulation of Blood Sugar

Skin-to-skin care in the hours after birth can help stabilize your baby’s blood sugar levels. Babies use blood sugar for energy. Before birth, they get glucose through the placenta; after birth, they get it from the mother. If your baby’s glucose needs (e.g., the energy needed to stay warm) exceed what he can get from his mother’s milk or from his liver, he will experience low blood sugar. This can cause him to feed poorly, which can exacerbate the problem. The risk of low blood sugar is higher for babies born to mothers with gestational diabetes due to higher insulin levels in their blood. As the number of mothers who develop gestational diabetes in pregnancy grows the number of babies at risk for hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) also rises.

Initiation of Breastfeeding

Skin to skin contact between mother and baby helps to initiate breastfeeding faster. A baby’s natural instincts can help him or her locate, latch on, and breastfeed providing the baby is in close contact with his mother. According to UNICEF, “every newborn, when placed on her mother’s abdomen, soon after birth, has the ability to find her mother’s breast all on her own and to decide when to take the first breastfeed.” Skin-to-skin contact also supports early breastfeeding. Some of the complex sugars in human milk are indigestible in the newborn but are the perfect food for a subspecies of bacteria that coat intestinal wall, boost digestive function, and provide protection from harmful bacteria (pathogens). Experts believe this these good bacteria may protect against allergic disease.

Transfer of Good Bacteria

The role of vaginal birth versus cesarean birth in transferring good bacteria from a mother to her newborn can’t be overstated. Passage through the birth canal allows the baby’s gut to be colonized with the bacteria in the mother’s vagina. Another way that babies get exposed to their mother’s bacteria is through skin-to-skin contact after birth. Bacteria in the vagina and on the skin are different from bacteria found in a hospital isolette, so early exposure helps babies develop a range of healthy bacteria.

Reduction in Crying

This is one advantage that you can see the effects immediately. Studies show that babies who are held the skin-to-skin contact, particularly by their mother, are apt to cry less than those separated from their mothers. Some refer to a newborn’s cry as a “separation distress call,” noting that it is a mammalian reflex well-suited to calling the mother back to the young. During the newborn period, most babies cease crying once reunited with their mothers; thinking anthropologically about a baby’s cry, it seems understandable that a baby is less likely to cry when he feels the protection and security provided of his mother. Having the baby “room in” with the mother at the hospital can help ensure that she is able to respond to her baby’s needs and provide frequent skin-to-skin contact.