Benefits of Skin to Skin for Babies AND Mums
We have known for a long time that skin-to-skin has many benefits for babies and breastfeeding.
And I think we have gotten pretty good at understanding how important skin-to-skin is immediately after birth because it really helps babies regulate and adapt to being born.
* I do know this isn’t happening in some places but the evidence is robust and you need to have conversations with your caregivers if this is not standard practice, especially if you are agreeing to an induction before 40 weeks but more about that later.
I recently did an Instagram post on the benefits of skin-to-skin for babies beyond the first few hours but I want to talk about the benefits for mums beyond improving their breastfeeding outcomes.
“Skin-to-skin contact is nature’s way to stimulate social interaction between mother and newborn after birth and to decrease stress levels and to stimulate processes linked to maturation, restoration and growth in both of them. These effects are obtained because skin-to-skin contact, including Kangaroo Care, by stimulation of cutaneous nerves, activates the oxytocinergic system, involving both peripheral (hormonal) and central effects”
Oxytocin is the Key
Kerstin Uvnäs Moberg is the guru when it comes to oxytocin (closely followed by Dr Sarah Buckley).
The 2020 paper that Uvnäs Moberg et al. (2020) wrote highlights how important skin-to-skin is for mothers, as it calms and restores them. This is because prolonged skin-to-skin contact releases oxytocin, which changes how your body handles stress and relaxation
This message is reinforced in hospitals when babies are taken off their mums, swaddled, and placed in a cot next to them.
“It is of clinical importance to be aware of the mechanisms by which skin-to-skin contact induces short and longterm positive effects in parents and newborns. If ward routines are adapted to ascertain a maximal stimulation of these mechanisms, the function of the oxytocinergic system will be optimized, which will be linked to a better clinical outcome for parents and newborns” (Uvnäs Moberget al. 2020).
Keep Holding Your Baby Naked
I recently gave a talk at the Strength To Progress Conference 2023 about the idea of allowing healthy mums and babies to safely co-sleep in hospitals and the research that shows this improves breastfeeding outcomes. (A blog on this is on my “to-do list” )
Unfortunately, despite the evidence I think it will be a long time before this happens but you can still hold your baby whenever you are awake and your partner can also help your baby have as much skin-to-skin as possible for both their benefit.
But it is skin-to-skin
Uvnäs Moberg et al. (2020) point out that although other sensory pathways are important such as sight, sound, smell, and touch, it is the cutaneous (skin) sensory nerves that play a special role, and they are activated by touch, light pressure and in particular warmth.
So clothes need to be off for the cutaneous (skin) sensory nerves to do their amazing work.
And keep doing skin-to-skin when you get home and in the early weeks with your baby.
I also tell my client that whenever they are feeling stressed to strip off and cuddle their baby. It has enormous benefits for months and years.
And partners can do it too.
Why do we have this amazing tool that calms everyone yet society tells us not to use it?
Imagine being surrounded by a culture that encourages constant contact and not being told you will “spoil” your baby if you hold them too much.
Imagine if our culture supported new parents to do what is biologically normal for them and their babies rather than trying to sell them expensive products when babies let their parents know we are a carrying species, not a nesting species (don’t get me started on the Snoo)
Because unfortunately, the release of oxytocin and these wonderful outcomes from skin-to-skin contact rely on the environment too.
Excessive noise, bright lights, and an overall unwelcoming and unfamiliar environment can hinder the release of oxytocin.
For mums to experience the optimal oxytocin release, they need to feel secure. and be surrounded by friendly and supportive family members who can help boost oxytocin release and its associated benefits.
Benefits of Skin-to-Skin
- Calms and relaxes both mother and baby
- Regulates the baby’s heart rate and breathing, helping them to better adapt to life outside the womb
- Stimulates digestion and an interest in feeding
- Stabilises baby’s blood sugars
- Regulates temperature
- Enables colonization of the baby’s skin with the mother’s friendly bacteria, thus providing protection against infection
- Stimulates the release of hormones to support breastfeeding and mothering.
Preterm Babies Need Skin-to-Skin Too
I have mainly been talking about the benefits of skin-to-skin for healthy term babies and mums but preterm babies need skin-to-skin too.
In fact, it can be argued that they need it even more.
Now neuroscientists can use imaging to see babies’ brains even before they are born, we have learned how babies’ brains develop during the last few weeks and days of pregnancy.
We have also redefined term due to this research as it is so important to make sure babies have the optimal amount of time for their brains to mature before they are born.
(If you want to know more about this have a look at www.everyweekcounts.com.au)
In terms of optimal brain development, it is now best practice that no baby be born before “39 completed weeks” (aka 40 weeks) without any clear medical indications.
Before this date, we should now be classifying babies as Preterm for planned births (eg induction or caesarean).
For babies in NICU skin to skin has been shown to improve oxygen saturation; reduce cortisol (stress) levels, particularly following painful procedures; encourage pre-feeding behaviour; assist with growth; reduce hospital stay and improve milk volume if the mother expresses following a period of skin-to-skin contact (UNICEF).
A 2014 study also found the long-term added benefit of improved maturation of the prefrontal cortex which led to better cognitive and behavioral outcomes when the babies who had 14 consecutive days of skin-to-skin in NICU were 10 years old.
“These findings are the first to demonstrate long-term effects of early touch-based intervention on children’s physiologic organization and behavioral control and have salient implications for the care practices of premature infants”
“Current findings indicate that early daily SSC in full-term infants may foster children’s behavioral development”
If you have any questions or would like to attend one of Pip’s workshops then get in touch now.
Mehrpisheh, S., Doorandish, Z., Farhadi, R., Ahmadi, M., & Moafi, M. (2023). The effectiveness of Kangaroo Mother Care (KMC) on depression, anxiety, and stress of mothers with premature infants. Journal of Neonatal Nursing, 29(5), 786-790.
Feldman R, Rosenthal Z, Eidelman AI. Maternal-preterm skin-to-skin contact enhances child physiologic organization and cognitive control across the first 10 years of life. Biol Psychiatry. 2014 Jan 1;75(1):56-64
Rheinheimer N, Beijers R, Bruinhof N, Cooijmans KHM, de Weerth C. Effects of daily full-term infant skin-to-skin contact on behavior and cognition at age three – secondary outcomes of a randomized controlled trial. J Child Psychol Psychiatry. 2023 Jan;64(1):136-144