What is skin-to-skin contact with your baby?
Skin-to-skin contact is, simply, holding your baby with their bare skin next to yours. The moment of birth is an amazing one and when your baby emerges, the first thing your midwife or obstetrician will do is to pass them up to your stomach or chest for the very first cuddle between you. You should also try to repeat this as often as you can in the early days and months.
Your baby has been tucked up inside you for nine months and is used to feeling constant contact on their body, so putting them against your skin at birth helps them feel safe. Your baby can feel your warmth and smell your skin, as well as hearing your voice and heartbeat. All this combines to make a baby feel secure.
What are the benefits of skin-to-skin contact?
Skin-to-skin contact has a range of benefits for mother and baby:
1. Skin-to-skin triggers a powerful hormone rush
Skin-to skin contact at birth triggers a rush of powerful hormones that help you bond with your baby. Most research on skin-to skin contact focuses on how it supports bonding with your newborn in the first few hours, but studies show that these benefits can continue well beyond those first few cuddles.
2. Can help calm you after an intense labour
Immediate skin-to-skin contact with your newborn can help calm you after what might have been an intense labour. The rush of hormones not only act to build a bond, but trigger a sense of relaxation and contentment.
3. Your skin helps keep your baby’s temperature stable
Newborn babies haven’t yet developed the ability to regulate their temperature properly. Both initial and future skin-to-skin contact helps keep your baby’s body temperature stable. In fact, studies have shown that skin-to-skin contact with both the mother and father is better than some artificial sources.
4. Helps keep regular breathing and heartbeat
Skin-to-skin contact with your newborn can help keep your baby’s breathing and heartbeat at the correct rate. After birth, babies transition drastically when they take their first breaths outside of the womb. By having the familiarity of their mother’s heart rate close, this transition can be made easier.
5. Maintains your baby’s blood sugar levels
Newborns use their blood sugar for energy. This comes in the form of glucose. Before being born they get glucose from the placenta, but once delivered into the world they have to get it from their mother’s milk, or from formula. Skin-to-skin contact after birth can help them remain healthy and free from fluctuating blood sugar levels, keeping your baby free from the risk of overly low or high blood sugar.
6. Helps start feeding, stimulate the digestive system and transfer good bacteria
The initial skin-to-skin contact can help initiate your baby’s feeding instincts. Their heightened sense of smell and closeness to the mother will help them locate and latch on. This can be really useful if you’ve chosen to breastfeed.
This initial contact and feeding helps stimulate digestion and transfer much needed good bacteria. There are some complex sugars found in human milk which can’t be digested when first entering the world, but are essential for certain bacteria which coat the intestinal wall. These bacteria are key in a healthy functioning digestive system and provide protection from harmful bacteria.
7. Skin-to-skin contact can help deliver the placenta
When your newborn latches on for the first time your uterus will contract. Consequently, this will help deliver your placenta.
It has been observed that newborns, if placed on their mother’s tummy after birth and left there undisturbed, will start to open their eyes, relax, then begin to crawl slowly to the breast and start sucking. This is called the “breast crawl.”
Can dads and partners do skin-to-skin contact?
Yes, it’s a great way for dads and partners to bond with their newborn, and your baby will soon become used to the voices and smells of other family members.
Skin-to-skin at birth
After your baby is born, mum and child should be left as long as possible to establish bonding and start feeding. You can request that new baby checks be delayed beyond this vital period, sometimes called the golden hour.
How long should a skin-to-skin session last?
You should enjoy as much skin-to-skin time with your baby as you can. Many new mums dress their baby just in a nappy, while they have their top open, for large parts of the day so that your baby can feed on-demand. You can continue to have skin-to-skin time for as long as you and your baby like, well beyond newborn days.
When might I not be able to hold my baby next to the skin?
Of course, it’s not always possible for you to hold your baby immediately. Sometimes your baby needs interventions at birth, especially if they are premature, so you may not be able to hold them. If they need to be in a special care baby unit, after an initial period of care and checks, you will be encouraged to cuddle with your baby as much as possible, a method of nurturing your baby known as Kangaroo Care.
Why you might have to wait a little while for your first cuddle
If you are having post-birth care yourself, remember that dads and partners can also provide valuable skin-to-skin contact too! For normal births and even Caesareans, you will be able to have your baby straight away for that all-important first bonding session. If you’re exhausted or the birth has not gone how you expected, holding your baby can help lift your spirits, as it releases oxytocin, a mood-boosting chemical.
Health organisation UNICEF believes strongly in the benefits of skin-to-skin contact and have launched the Baby Friendly Initiative, which sets standards for health professionals to help mums and babies at the moment of birth. It aims to help parents establish a close and loving relationship with their baby.
What happens if your baby doesn’t seem to enjoy being skin-to-skin?
Make sure you have removed any jewellery that’s sharp or cold. Also avoid strong-smelling scents your baby might not like, as a baby’s sense of smell is very strong. Even if your baby is not in the mood for cuddles, stroking them or offering a baby massage can have great benefits.
Some parents find it hard to enjoy being skin-to-skin with their baby – that may just be a personal thing, but it may also be an indicator for postnatal depression. If you are worried, speak to your health visitor or GP who can refer you for some sensitive and supportive help.
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