Why Is Skin-to-Skin Contact with Your Newborn Important?

newborn baby girl in pink knitted bear hat

If you give birth at a conventional maternity ward, chances are when the baby is born, you will be surrounded by various hospital personnel who will quickly pick up the newborn once the umbilical cord is cut, then transport her a few steps to the small table where she will be cleaned. The baby will then be quickly wrapped, or swaddled, in a small bed sheet or a baby blanket.

The idea with swaddling is that it gives babies comfort by somewhat recreating the “cocooned” feeling the baby had while she was still inside your body. Swaddling also binds baby’s extremities close to the body, so that she won’t startle herself awake when she jerks her little limbs while she sleeps.

Swaddling may come in handy down the line, but it appears that at least at the start, it is important for mom and baby to have a lot of direct skin-to-skin contact — the more of it, the better.

Many studies have now shown that the comfort and contentment of the newborn are improved noticeably when she has the opportunity to spend time on mom’s chest and stomach while the baby is naked or wearing only a diaper. This contact should occur soon after birth (as soon as baby gets cleaned by nurse), and as much as possible thereafter, especially in the first handful of weeks of her life.

Newborns who spend time in direct skin-to-skin contact with their moms seem happier, their heart and breathing rates are more stable, and their blood sugar is higher. (It is important for infants to conserve blood sugar, since baby may not be hungry right away or may initially have trouble getting milk out of the breast.)

Skin-to-skin contact right after birth also causes the newborn to be colonized by the same bacteria that her mom has. Skin-to-skin contact and breastfeeding are two very important ways in which future allergic diseases can be prevented in the child. When babies are not in direct immediate contact with their moms and are not breastfed (such as when an infant is placed in an incubator), their skins and guts are colonized by different bacteria from those that the mother has; this can cause the baby allergies later on.

With respect to the infant’s comfort, one study measured the temperature of several body parts, including the feet, in newborns from 30 minutes to 2 hours after birth, every 15 minutes. Researchers found that the babies who maintained the most stable, comfortable temperatures throughout their bodies were babies who were lying naked on their mothers’ chests. Second came babies who were held in mom’s arms while either clothed or swaddled. The babies who fared the worst — whose feet were colder — were the babies who were swaddled and kept in the hospital’s nursery.

A baby who is prevented from being with mom, such as babies in incubators, or a baby who is swaddled in a blanket, may become too sleepy, may disassociate from her surroundings, or may even cry in distress. Being wrapped in a blanket limits a baby’s ability to interact with mom. Some doctors point out that when a baby is allowed to interact freely with mom, and mom with baby, without the baby being swaddled or clothed, mom and baby will better communicate with each other through touch. This will help the newborn stay calm, her breathing will be more regular, and it will stimulate instinctive behaviors such as rooting and looking for the breast.

In addition, studies have found that babies who have at least one hour of skin-to-skin contact with mom right after birth are more likely to latch on to the mother’s nipple properly and without help; this means they will have an easier time getting enough milk. Babies who get skin-to-skin contact right after birth are also more likely to breastfeed exclusively, and to breastfeed longer.

Skin-to-skin contact after birth can also be done by a mother who had a C-section, even while she gets her stitches, so long as her medical condition allows it. Many premature babies can benefit from skin-to-skin contact as well, and it is said to reduce these infants’ need for extra oxygen, and keep their metabolisms more stable.

Giving birth, as well as being born, are stressful experiences. For the new mom, adjusting to her new role and the loss of sleep that’s to come are sure to add some stress. Skin-to-skin contact appears to calm the mom as well as the baby. One study showed that moms who had six hours of skin-to-skin contact during the first week of their baby’s life, then continued having direct skin contact for a month, reported fewer depressive symptoms and lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol in their saliva.

As for the babies, a study published in the journal Pediatrics found that three hours of skin-to-skin contact a day decreased infant crying by 43 percent. These babies also fell asleep more easily and slept longer — two things every new mom would appreciate.

By LIsa Pecos