The Importance of Skin to Skin Contactby Jasmine Gurney
When a baby is born, they can either be cleaned up and placed in a crib beside the mother while the mother goes through the third stage of labour or recovers from the birth/medical intervention, or the baby is placed directly onto the mother’s chest to initiate skin-to-skin contact. They are then usually left with a warm blanket over them for at least an hour or until after the first feed. Skin-to-skin contact can also take place at any time the baby needs comforting or calming or to help boost a mother’s milk supply.
During skin-to-skin contact, the baby is held on the mother’s chest to initiate their strong bond and encourage instinctive behaviour in both. The mother will experience a huge surge of maternal hormones and will begin to stroke, smell and engage with her baby. The baby’s first instincts straight after birth follow a unique process which will result in searching for food and achieving self-attachment.
Following birth, babies that are placed skin-to-skin on their mother’s chest after birth will:
- Cry briefly, which is a very distinctive birth cry
- Enter a stage of deep relaxation, where they will not move much while they recover from the birth
- Begin to wake up, opening their eyes and showing response to their mother’s voice
- Begin to move a little
- As their movements start to increase, the baby will bring their knees up and appear to move or crawl in search of the breast
- Once at the breast, they will rest for a while (this can often be mistaken as the baby not being hungry or not wanting to feed)
- After a short rest, the baby will start to familiarise themselves with the breast, perhaps nuzzling, smelling and licking around the area. This familiarisation can last a while, but it mustn’t be rushed. Sometimes, it is very tempting to help your baby to attach, but remain patient and allow them to work it out for themselves. This will greatly aid breastfeeding once you’re home and as your baby grows
- Finally, the baby will self-attach and begin to feed
- Once the baby has suckled for a while, it will detach from the breast and often both mother and baby will fall asleep
Left uninterrupted, both mum and baby will be allowed to familiarise themselves with each other and complete the first feed. This then can result in fewer breastfeeding problems as the baby grows. If the mother has been given a lot of analgesia during labour baby may be drowsy, or if the baby is taken away to be weighed, or the mother goes for a shower, this process can take longer.
Vigilance is key at this stage, paying close attention to the baby’s well-being during the first few hours after birth. All normal observations of the mother and baby will continue by both nursing staff and the mother’s birthing partner. Sensible safety precautions will be taken if required, such as placing the baby in a bed-side crib, or if a mother had an epidural or other drugs during labour that have made her drowsy, she should not be left alone with the baby during skin contact, in case she falls asleep and baby moved themselves and the mother is not awake to support them. In this situation, her birthing partner can keep an eye on the mother-baby dup but would need to be thoroughly informed and alert to the responsibility of this.
Skin-to-skin contact can also be vital in neonatal units, where it’s often referred to as ‘kangaroo care’, helping parents bond with their baby as well as encouraging better physical and developmental outcomes. Across the country, there is a growing number of studies which has developed evidence to show the importance of skin-to-skin contact after birth helps babies in several different ways, which include:
- Relaxing and calming both mother and baby following labour
- Regulating the baby’s heart rate and breathing, helping them to adapt to their new life outside the womb
- Stimulating the baby’s digestion and encouraging pre-feeding behaviour
- Regulating body temperature for both mum and baby
- Provides protection for the baby against infection as the baby’s skin combines with the mother’s friendly bacteria.
- Stimulating hormone release to support breastfeeding and mothering.
- Reduces cortisol (stress) level particularly following painful procedures in neonatal units
- Encouraging growth in neonatal units
- Helping to reduce the length of hospital stays in neonatal units
- Improving the quality and volume of milk expressed, following skin-to-skin contact
Neonatal units and birthing units in hospitals are all very well-versed in the importance of skin-to-skin contact and will ask during the labour planning stage if this is what the mother would want included in their birthing plan