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Baby Bonding: Benefits of Skin-to-Skin Contact

If you’re an expecting or new parent, you may have heard of skin-to-skin contact, otherwise called kangaroo care. Proponents of this practice sing its praises with passion, claiming that it has significant benefits for both parents and child. In fact, there is significant scientific evidence to suggest that skin-to-skin contact does proffer notable advantages including helping bonding with newborn baby and making breastfeeding easier. This article will dive into this topic in depth, explaining everything you need to know about skin-to-skin contact.

What is Skin-to-Skin Contact?

So what is this highly-lauded practice, anyway? Skin-to-skin contact refers to a form of baby bonding time that involves laying the baby, naked except for a diaper, onto the parents’ bare chest. It can be done by both mothers and fathers, and can start as early as immediately after delivery.

This practice has its origins in Bogota, Colombia. As the legend goes, a neonatal ward was running short on incubators for babies with severe hospital infections so, in order to keep the babies warm, they had to get creative. Doctors Edgar Rey and Hector Martinez thought of kangaroos, who hold their young immediately after birth. They had the idea to send new mothers home with the instruction to hold their diapered infants to their bare chests, between their breasts, as often as possible.

The results were sensational. Not only did doing this reduce the demand for incubators, but it also led to a major drop in infant mortality rates - from 70 to 30 per cent. Since then, skin-to-skin contact, also called kangaroo care, has become a fairly common practice, with doctors worldwide recommending it to parents of babies both premature and full-term.

Benefits of Skin-to-Skin Contact

As we’ve alluded to several times now, kangaroo care offers several serious benefits, many with compelling scientific evidence supporting their existence. Here is a list of exactly what advantages you may expect to experience if you try out skin-to-skin contact.

Benefits for Babies

First, it’s worth noting that skin-to-skin does more than just create benefits of its own. In fact, it has been shown that not doing skin-to-skin can lead to some issues such as ADD, colic, and sleep disorders, all of which is thought to come from added stress pathways in the brain.

Beyond that, skin-to-skin contact can help improve the baby’s weight gain and lead to superior thermoregulation. This is the process that allows babies to maintain their core body temperature even as external temperature conditions change. Doing skin-to-skin lets the mother’s body act like a thermostat for the baby, adjusting its temperature to meet the baby’s needs, much like it did when the baby was in the womb.

When the baby doesn’t have to expend as much energy to maintain its temperature, its ability to gain weight improves. Another contributing factor to improved weight gain is the fact that skin-to-skin leads to more successful breastfeeding immediately after birth, which we’ll discuss in more detail later on in this article.

Learn more: What to Do When Your Breastfed Baby Goes on a Nursing Strike

A mother holding a baby in skin to skin contact wrapped in a blanket

Skin-to-skin contact generally helps the baby to stabilize and self-regulate, leading to a more stable heart rate and breathing. As such, kangaroo care can eliminate up to 75 per cent of heart and breathing episodes in newborn babies. It is also thought that the practise can reduce pain in infants. All of this leads to the baby crying less often. In fact, one study showed that newborn babies who received skin-to-skin contact cried 12 times less than their counterparts who did not.

Just 20 minutes of skin-to-skin care is enough to lower the baby’s cortisol levels, leading to fewer gastrointestinal problems and better absorption and digestion of nutrients. This also contributes to maintaining weight and a sufficiently warm body temperature.

Skin-to-skin contact is also a great way to help your baby fall asleep and achieve the important state of deep sleep, which helps accelerate brain patterning and maturation. As such, babies who receive kangaroo care see improved brain development and function. And by helping the baby form a healthy parental attachment, skin-to-skin contact can also lead to reduced rates of depression and better performance in school later on in life.

In addition to everything mentioned above, other benefits of kangaroo care include the colonisation of the baby with the mother’s healthy bacteria, which protects the baby against infection, higher blood oxygen levels, and a stronger immune system, which leads to lower rates of illness and improved survival rates.

Benefits for Parents

Of course, skin-to-skin contact doesn’t only benefit the baby; it also has pros for the parents. First, it’s worth mentioning that there is a strong sense of bonding with newborn that happens during skin-to-skin. As a dad bonding with baby during kangaroo care, fathers may experience a sense of closeness as well as the warmth that comes from knowing they are contributing to giving the baby all of the benefits mentioned in the section above.

A father embracing skin-to-skin contact with his baby, creating a nurturing and bonding moment

When it comes to mother-infant bonding in particular, skin-to-skin increases mums’ oxytocin levels, which reduces blood pressure and lowers stress. It can also help you return to your pre-pregnancy hormone levels, which reduces the risk of postpartum depression. Studies even show that parents who participate in kangaroo care feel more confident in their parenting and experience less anxiety.

Learn more: Postpartum depression during the pandemic

Benefits for C-Section Mothers

There are also potential benefits you can expect from skin-to-skin if you gave birth via C-section. Namely, some studies have shown that some mothers who practised skin-to-skin contact with their infants reported less pain after their Cesarean surgery. It is worth noting, however, that evidence was not strong enough to suggest a clear effect of separation on pain.

Generally, studies do not find any adverse outcomes of skin-to-skin for C-section babies, and Cesarean parents have reported higher satisfaction with the birth experience when given the opportunity to do skin-to-skin contact immediately after giving birth.

Learn more: Everything You Want (And Didn’t Know You Need) to Know About C-Section Recovery

Benefits for Breastfeeding

One of the most significant benefits to both parent and baby that can result from kangaroo care is improved breastfeeding, which is often a major stressor to new mothers. Studies have shown that skin-to-skin contact releases hormones that help improve mother’s breastmilk production. Babies who experience skin-to-skin care are 32 percent more likely to breastfeed successfully during their first feed.

Learn more: Best tips and advice for nursing your baby.

And these breastfeeding benefits aren’t temporary. Mums who practise kangaroo care are more likely to breastfeed exclusively and for longer periods. Plus, they have less breast pain and engorgement, which can be a major nuisance for breastfeeding mothers.

So, are you convinced that skin-to-skin care is worth trying? So is the World Health Organization, which recommends that all newborns receive skin-to-skin care, no matter the baby’s weight, gestational age, birth setting, or clinical condition.

When to Do Skin-to-Skin

Now that you’re informed about all of the reasons to try kangaroo care, you may be wondering when can you start skin-to-skin and get all of these amazing benefits? Well, pretty much immediately. In most cases, you can do skin-to-skin contact as soon as your baby is delivered, as well as throughout your stay at the hospital and after you take your baby home. From there, you can keep doing skin-to-skin contact for mother-child bonding for months after your baby is born. Experts tend to recommend at least three months for full-term babies and six months for premature babies.

A mother embracing skin-to-skin contact with her newborn baby after labor

How Long to Do Skin-to-Skin Contact

The first time you do skin-to-skin bonding with newborn immediately after his or her birth, it’s recommended you keep at it for at least one to two hours. Ideally, you would have your first breastfeeding session during this time. This will also give enough time for your baby’s first sleep cycle.

After this first time, you can practice skin-to-skin bonding for as long as you like, with a recommended minimum of 20 minutes at a time. It’s just important to be careful not to fall asleep with your baby on your chest. Enlisting your partner to be there with you can help prevent you from dozing off, especially during a longer skin-to-skin session.

How to Do Skin-to-Skin Contact

Performing kangaroo care is rather simple and intuitive. Just sit comfortably in a quiet place, ideally with privacy and dim lighting. Wearing only their diaper, position your baby on your bare chest, allowing their head to face sideways to keep their airway open. You can place a blanket over both you and your baby if you get chilly. Relax and enjoy this time together. You can read, listen to music, or talk to your baby, whatever feels right for you. If you want, you can do this alone or with your partner, even switching off who holds the baby to perform skin-to-skin care one after the other.

Skin-to-Skin Tips for First-Time Parents

If you’re performing skin-to-skin for the first time, here are some tips and guidance for what you can expect.

When your doctors first place your newborn on your chest, he or she is likely to be crying that distinct newborn cry. Don’t worry. Soon, they’ll relax deeply, staying still as they recover from birth. After some time, your baby will open his or her eyes and start to respond to your voice. You may want to take this time to talk to your baby.

Soon enough, your newborn will start moving a little, eventually even moving toward your breast when they are ready to feed. After a short period of rest, your baby will begin to familiarize itself with your breast through a combination of nuzzling, smelling and licking. Don’t rush this stage, as it can take a bit of time.

Stay patient and let your baby figure out how to latch. Eventually, they will most likely self-attach and begin to feed. Don’t hesitate to adjust you and your baby’s position to get more comfortable. After your baby suckles for a while, he or she may fall asleep, and you may also find yourself drifting off. If you do, that can be a great time for your partner to get in some skin-to-skin contact of their own.

Learn more: What to Expect During the First 2 Weeks of Breastfeeding

Do your best not to hurry this process or interrupt it, because doing so can make it more challenging to breastfeed later on. If, for whatever reason, you aren’t able to make skin-to-skin contact immediately after birth, try to do so at the earliest opportunity you have. Don’t hesitate to let your doctors and nurses know that this is important to you so that they don’t interfere.

Ultimately, this process is all about bonding with your baby. Do your best to be present, relax, and enjoy getting to know your new little one.