Gill O’Connor, Infant Feeding and Breastfeeding Development Coordinator:

Skin-to-skin contact

Parents who have attended antenatal classes or have read about the importance of skin-to-skin contact may not be aware of the history of how this has evolved to be such an important part of the parenting journey.

As early as the mid-1970s work was being carried out to look at the impact of separation of mother and baby directly after birth when babies were taken to be bathed, dressed and either presented to the parents or taken to the nursery so mothers could rest. However it was only when towards the eighties that a neonatologist in Bogota, faced with a lack of incubators and caregivers, put babies on mothers for continuous skin-to-skin contact to keep warm and facilitate breastfeeding that he observed the additional benefits.

So why is skin-to-skin so important?

Mothers and babies have been beginning their bonding process during pregnancy, recognising the sounds of their parents’ voices and listening to familiar background sounds. When babies are born, they are faced with a bright, noisy and totally unfamiliar environment. Their biological instinct is to turn to snuggle into their mothers and seek her nipple to breastfeed exactly the same as any other mammal following birth. Sometimes this may take as long as 45 minutes while the baby recovers and rests – as birth can be tiring for babies too!

The impact of being separated can cause stress to both mother and baby and a mother who is separated from her baby can experience high levels of anxiety. This is because nature has determined that this instinctive behaviour is a protective factor for a helpless infant.

Research has shown that skin-to-skin is particularly helpful in the neonatal unit and the introduction of Kangaroo Care packages mean that there are better outcomes for babies that are premature or low birth weight.

Early introduction of skin-to-skin immediately following birth (if possible) has been shown to calm babies and reduce their stress levels. Babies cried less frequently during this period and were able to maintain temperature and there was less risk of their blood sugar dropping.

Breastfeeding initiation and continuation of breastfeeding up to four months and beyond is statistically proven to have been influenced by skin to skin contact following birth.

In the first hour or two following birth, skin-to-skin is particularly important for mother and baby to establish breastfeeding. Finally, it is important to remember that fathers and primary care givers can also practice skin-to-skin to give the other physiological benefits including keep baby warm, less stressed and helping them maintain blood glucose levels. The benefits of skin to fathers have been shown to increase the levels of oxytocin which is the ‘love hormone’ and help them get to know and form relationships with their babies.

Useful links:

The Association of Breastfeeding Mothers
The Breastfeeding Network
La Leche League GB
The Multiple Births Foundation
The National Childbirth Trust
The Breasfeeding Companion

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