By Ali Weatherford

If you are having a baby for the first time, you may not have heard about skin-to-skin contact (SSC) for newborns.

When we’re talking about babies, it means that baby’s bare skin is making direct contact with your bare skin. This works best when babies are wearing nothing or just a diaper, and you are topless or your chest or belly skin is exposed enough to get that direct meeting of skins. You may have a blanket over you both if it’s cold.

Why is Skin-to-Skin Contact Important?

If you’ve never heard of this, it might not make a lot of sense! There has been a lot of scientific research into the benefits of SSC for babies and also for new parents. Most of the research has focused on the time immediately following birth. In an article published in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, they write that:

|“Skin-to-skin contact (SSC) begins ideally at birth and should last continually until the end of the first breastfeeding. SSC involves placing the dried, naked baby prone on the mother’s bare chest, often covered with a warm blanket. According to mammalian neuroscience, the intimate contact inherent in this place (habitat) evokes neuro-behaviors ensuring fulfillment of basic biological needs. This time frame immediately post-birth may represent a ‘sensitive period’ for programming future physiology and behavior.” |

That’s a lot of pressure to put on this small window of time. The research points to the strongest benefits for skin-to-skin time being IMMEDIATELY after birth and UNINTERRUPTED for at least until the first breastfeeding is completed. This might be an hour, and it might be more. Interruption of this process can have some negative effects and can start a snowball effect that complicates what follows. For example, a baby is most likely to breastfeed quickly and well when they have SSC so they can feel better and get good rest. As a result, they may be less fussy and will have the energy to feed again soon to get plenty of nutrition. When they eat breast milk often, they are getting what they need to get a good start on helping their intestines digest food. Good digestion means happier babies and better diaper output. And on and on and on…….

Potential Benefits for The Birthing Mother or Parent

  • Quicker and easier placenta birth
  • Reduced bleeding
  • Better breastfeeding
  • Lower stress levels
  • Improved bonding with baby

Potential Benefits for The Baby

  • Better body temperature regulation
  • Less crying
  • Better breastfeeding
  • Improved coordination of senses
  • Better bonding with mother
  • Stronger breathing
  • Allows for instinctual beneficial behaviors to continue
  • Better blood sugar levels

What if We Can’t Have Immediate or Uninterrupted Skin-to-Skin Contact?

Sometimes our babies need a little extra support or they need to get additional medical attention for a little while. Or sometimes they need to spend a significant amount of time in the NICU. Sometimes we need some time before we can have our babies on us because of a complication or anesthesia.

All is not lost. Whatever happens, know that it’s never too late.

SSC is encouraged in most NICUs because it is shown to have very positive effects on babies who need extra support, so you can do it there. If your baby just needs to be away for a short time, you can start SSC as soon as your baby gets back to you. If you can’t provide the immediate SSC, partners can take over with the baby until you can. Any SSC is good and your baby will benefit.

And it doesn’t have to stop once we get home. SSC will continue to benefit you for postpartum recovery. Research shows that more SSC continues to help by reducing symptoms of postpartum depression, anxiety, and sleep problems and contributes to overall recovery and health. One SSC benefit is the production of more oxytocin. If you’ve taken any of the breastfeeding classes I host at Breastfeeding Success, you’ve probably heard this word more than once!

Oxytocin is a hormone that is produced by the pituitary gland. Oxytocin is responsible for many things, most notably human bonding, but also labor contractions and positive feelings. It’s a very complex and important chemical! Oxytocin is released after stimulation of the skin which activates sensory nerves. SSC and suckling of the nipple definitely help us release lots of oxytocin. Oxytocin levels also increase during social interaction, which includes time spent holding our babies, talking to our babies, and looking into their eyes. During our postpartum recovery, when all of these things are happening, the oxytocin levels are usually pretty high and this helps us feel great, and recover better, and more quickly.

Another amazing bonus to this postpartum SSC is that more physical closeness to our babies can help with their gut microbiome colonization! Our babies are born with mostly sterile intestines. We may think this sounds good, but actually, it’s not. They need to start getting lots of little microbes in there so they can start digesting food. They will get some from the vaginal canal on the way out, and they will also pick up some healthy bacteria and microbes off of our skin when we are having SSC and breastfeeding.

Additionally, when we are experiencing the positive benefits of oxytocin with lower levels of stress hormones, we are also feeding our babies higher-quality breast milk. The quality of our milk is affected by our mental health. When we have high levels of stress, the amount and quality tend to go down. High-quality breast milk and having plenty of it actually helps the baby’s gut microbiome mature and get healthy more quickly so they are better able to digest food and absorb all the great nutrients!

I love that science is beginning to understand the chemical and physiological mechanisms of something that is very instinctual for a lot of people. When our instincts match the science, we get great support that benefits us and our families. For a long time, science was not there to back our instincts, and too many people didn’t get to experience the benefits of SSC and breastfeeding. For too many years, umbilical cords were quickly cut, and babies were taken away to be washed and dressed and wrapped up tightly before we even had a chance to touch them. That was often very difficult for the parents who desperately wanted to be holding their babies. It was often very difficult for the babies who just wanted to be held by their mothers. Now, those instincts to hold and touch our babies are validated by science, and we are being better supported in having those needs met. And now we know that there are physiological reasons for all of these instincts! It’s a beautifully harmonious system that works for optimum health while also making us feel bonded and happy.

To learn more about skin-to-skin contact, join our Belly to Birth: Your Childbirth Journey Class. New classes start monthly and are often covered by insurance.

Moore ER, Bergman N, Anderson GC, Medley N. Early skin-to-skin contact for mothers and their healthy newborn infants. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2016, Issue 11. Art. No.: CD003519. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD003519.pub4. Accessed 05 September 2022.

Cooijmans, K.H.M., Beijers, R., Rovers, A.C. et al. Effectiveness of skin-to-skin contact versus care-as-usual in mothers and their full-term infants: study protocol for a parallel-group randomized controlled trial. BMC Pediatr 17, 154 (2017).

Our articles are not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

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