Skin-to-skin contact has a wealth of benefits for both baby and parents, especially when started right after birth. Learn the top 6 benefits of skin-to-skin contact, plus how to start it.
Skin-to-skin contact, also called kangaroo care, is when your nearly naked baby is placed directly on your bare chest. During skin-to-skin contact, baby wears only a diaper and possibly a hat – no other clothes, and no swaddle. That way, their bare stomach and chest will have direct contact with your skin. (You can place a blanket over baby's back for extra warmth.)
Both mothers and fathers can start skin-to-skin contact with baby shortly after baby is born, and continue it throughout infancy. The closeness of skin-to-skin contact helps your little one relax and bond with you. And the benefits of skin-to-skin contact have been seen in both full-term babies and babies born prematurely.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that all babies have skin-to-skin contact with their mother as soon as possible after birth. And other leading medical organizations, such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) make the same recommendation. This is because skin-to-skin contact has a wealth of benefits for both baby and you (the parents), especially when started right after birth. Here's our list of the top 6 benefits of skin-to-skin contact.
1. Skin-to-skin contact encourages bonding with your little one
Skin-to-skin contact encourages the release of hormones such as oxytocin in both baby and their parents.
Oxytocin is known as the "love hormone" or "attachment hormone" because it promotes bonding between parents and children. It especially promotes mother-infant attachment, and helps a mom and baby learn each other's scents. This leads to strong feelings of love and calmness when baby and mother are close to each other.
But these positive hormonal effects aren’t limited to the birth mother. Dads also produce oxytocin after skin-to-skin contact, leading to a stronger father-baby bond. (Yes, it may take a bit longer to establish the bond, but a dad’s oxytocin levels will equal those of a mom’s eventually!) And there's emerging evidence that other parents and close caregivers who haven't given birth produce oxytocin when they hold baby skin-to-skin – including adoptive parents and parents welcoming a baby via surrogate.
Learn more about the benefits of skin-to-skin contact in this video from Bundoo:
2. It helps promote breastfeeding
For breastfeeding moms, the oxytocin that skin-to-skin contact releases helps stimulate milk production. Another hormone, called prolactin, has the same breastmilk-boosting properties and is also released when baby’s skin touches yours.
And from the baby’s point of view, the oxytocin baby’s body releases during skin-to-skin contact helps them find and latch onto the breast.
Several research studies have shown that babies who have skin-to-skin contact right after birth start breastfeeding more easily, and breastfeed longer and more successfully than other babies.
So, skin-to-skin contact is recommended as soon as possible after birth for breastfeeding moms, for an optimum start to breastfeeding.
And even after those early moments, hour-long sessions of skin-to-skin contact may help moms and babies who struggle with breastfeeding quickly establish a more successful latch – sometimes immediately.
3. It helps baby regulate temperature
Babies aren’t equipped to successfully regulate their temperature on their own yet (after all, they didn’t need to do this in the womb). In particular, babies’ bodies lose heat very quickly.
But when mom or dad gives baby skin-to-skin contact, their chest temperature adjusts to the temperature baby needs – warming up if baby is cold, and cooling down if baby is too hot. And since baby doesn’t spend as much energy trying to get their body to the right temperature, skin-to-skin contact helps promote healthy growth and weight gain.
4. It helps baby regulate other systems of the body
When baby’s close to you, their breathing, blood sugar levels, and heartbeat stabilize more quickly. Plus, skin-to-skin contact makes it easier for baby to fall into a deep sleep and sleep for longer stretches, which might aid their brain development.
5. It helps calm baby
Skin-to-skin contact helps baby feel more secure, since they’re held close to you and can feel your warmth. They can also recognize your voice and heartbeat, familiar sounds that they could hear while they were in the womb.
In addition, only 20 minutes of skin-to-skin contact reduces baby’s levels of cortisol, the hormone associated with stress. (Reduced cortisol levels also mean that baby’s body absorbs and processes the nutrients in breastmilk or formula more effectively, leading to improved growth and fewer GI problems.)
And the heightened amounts of the “love hormone” oxytocin come into play – yet again – to help baby feel calm when they’re held against your skin. Combined, these factors may lead baby to cry less. Thanks to the skin-to-skin contact, baby’s brain learns that it’s safe outside the womb because they are close to mom or dad.
6. It helps reduce parents’ anxiety and stress
For biological moms, studies have shown that skin-to-skin contact can reduce the risk of postpartum depression. And thanks to the powerhouse hormone oxytocin, holding baby skin to skin helps any parent relax, lowers stress levels, and helps reduce the risk of anxiety.
Skin-To-Skin Contact Shortly After Birth
If baby is born vaginally and has no health issues, you'll usually be given time for skin-to-skin contact right after birth. This is because doctors and nurses know how important the "golden hour" – the hour immediately after birth – is for parent and infant bonding. Skin-to-skin contact is one of the most effective ways to maximize this hour and create a stronger attachment between baby and parents. And as covered above, it's also one of the best ways to encourage successful breastfeeding if you've chosen to breastfeed.
If you want skin-to-skin time with baby as soon as possible (assuming all goes according to plan), you can indicate this on your birth plan that you share with doctors and nurses. That way, they’re aware it’s a priority.
If you have a C-section, episiotomy or other health need that keeps you from holding baby right away, that doesn't mean that you can't maximize the golden hour. Your partner can start skin-to-skin contact first, and then you can have skin-to-skin time once you've recovered.
If baby is born prematurely or has health issues, and you can't have skin-to-skin contact right after birth, don't be discouraged. The doctors will still work to give you and baby skin-to-skin contact as soon as they can, especially if they know that is your preference. In the meantime, you can ask to hold baby's hand or place your hands over their head so they know you are close by. You will have plenty of time for skin-to-skin bonding soon!
How To Do Skin-To-Skin Contact
Ideally, skin-to-skin contact sessions should last for at least an hour at a time, although you can reap some benefits from only 20 minutes to half an hour of skin-to-skin time.
You should be healthy before you do skin-to-skin time – hold off if you have a contagious illness, so you’re less likely to pass that to baby.
When you’re ready, take off your shirt and baby’s clothing so both of your chests are bare. Sit or recline in a comfortable position, then place baby’s stomach on your chest. Their arms and legs should be flexed (in a way that looks like a frog) and one of their cheeks should rest against your chest. Their head should be close enough that you can kiss it. Cover baby’s back with a blanket if the environment seems cool. Make sure baby’s airway is not blocked – they must be able to see you and breathe normally.
During skin-to-skin time, focus only on baby. Eliminate all distractions, including your phone, and try to relax. If you’re a breastfeeding mom, let baby choose whether they want to feed. Don’t force the breast on baby.
Skin-to-skin sessions can continue for weeks to months after birth, long after you’re home from the hospital. Even though all the benefits above were seen in young babies and their parents, this practice can continue to be a meaningful bonding time throughout baby’s first year.
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