Updated: Dec 19, 2021
Many of us are aware of the more widely discussed benefits of skin to skin contact in the "golden hour" (the hour-ish immediately following birth), but there is SO much more to know! Skin to skin contact, whether with the birthing parent or another caregiver, has several amazing and fascinating benefits for everyone involved! Heads up, this gets a little science-y but hang in there, there are some neat take-aways for parents and providers.
The more commonly known benefits
When most of us think of skin to skin, the word 'bonding' probably immediately comes to mind. Bonding between caregiver and baby is facilitated during skin to skin primarily due to action of the hormones, typically oxytocin (typically at very high levels in the birthing parent, but stimulated in any caregiver participating in skin-to-skin contact), and high infant levels of catecholamines (these stress hormone levels are high in order to help the infant transition from womb to world, but serve additional functions). Getting cozy with your newborn helps regulate their body temperature. Skin to skin contact facilitates the initiation of breastfeeding as well, through stimulation of milk production via hormones, and the sensory-aided experiences described later in this article. In addition to these more well recognized benefits, following is a list of some interesting skin to skin facts!
Skin to skin develops the senses
Connections and feeding are driven by sensory experiences of the caregiver and the infant during the hour after birth with skin to skin. Keeping the infant's head close to the caregiver's face facilitates the attraction of the parent to the odor of the infant. Exposure to the smell of colostrum floods the infant's olfactory (smell) brain center with oxygenated hemoglobin. Paired with an increase in the odors released from glands on the breasts, the infant's sensitivity to the smell of breastmilk is enhanced, helping to guide the infant toward the source of the milk! Proximity to the breast allows the infant to see the areola (which darkens in color toward the time of delivery), making the breast a visual target. The infant uses their hands to explore the caregiver's chest, often grazing the nipple, and transferring the taste of the nipple to their hand and bringing the hands to the mouth. Once in proximity, the baby uses exploratory tongue movements to lick the breast and nipple in preparation for suckling. Positioning of the infant belly down on the chest of the parent allows the infant to utilize reflexive and instinctual movement to position themselves for their first feeding (known as the breast crawl). The breast crawl is just one part of a nine-part sequence of movements and activities the neonate performs within the first hour or two following birth when in undisturbed contact with the parent. These early movement and sensory experiences set up and organize the infant's sensorimotor systems.
Skin to skin expedites third stage of labor
Skin to skin causes an increase uterine contractions, which decreases postpartum bleeding. The increased oxytocin causes the placenta to be delivered sooner and more completely. Additionally, the infant's feet pushing off the parent's tummy during movements toward the breast may also increase uterine contractions. For those with a C-section birth, the skin to skin contact will still stimulate these contractions, the infant would just be placed horizontally across the chest/breasts.
Skin to skin reduces stress
Possibly one of the coolest biological responses to skin to skin is temperature regulation. The chest temperature of the parent increases locally to regulate the body temperature of the infant. Increased infant temps are correlated with improved tolerance of the stress of being born. Skin to skin can reduce crying behavior in newborns, as well as facilitate a restful state. This may be particularly important in the event the birthing parent undergoes trauma or is required to be separated from the
infant for a period of time following birth. An alternate caregiver may provide the basis upon which the baby can perform the optimal pre-feeding behaviors described above (rooting, sucking, resting, sensory and motor experiences), keeping baby calm and on track until the baby is reunited with the breastfeeding parent. In addition, skin to skin elicits calm and responsive caregiving behaviors in the parents. To me, the weight of a calm baby on my chest is one of the most paralyzingly relaxing things in the world!
Skin to skin develops the microbiome
Colonization of the microbiome (gut bacteria) begins in-utero and continues with exposure to bacteria within the birth canal. After birth, bacteria on the parent's skin further colonizes the gut, sustained by colostrum, and the microbiome may have a lifelong impact on the infant's health. Research is growing that implicates the gut microbiome as a factor in gene expression. In other words, the digestive health of the infant is set up within those first few months of life, and optimizing it may considerably impact development throughout the lifespan!
Skin to skin helps with self-regulation
Likely due to the social/behavioral aspects of skin to skin time, it is thought to improve self-regulation, or a child's ability to modulate behavior and emotion, at one year of age. This was correlated with mother-infant mutuality at one year, in other words, dyads that possessed a strong relational bond. Perhaps this is a natural conclusion if the social-emotional experience of early skin to skin extends to a responsive parenting relationship. Whether due to cause or correlation, it's still a pretty cool benefit!
Skin to skin is increasingly supported in hospital settings, especially in those compliant with "Baby-Friendly" initiatives. I have myself experienced the many benefits of regular skin to skin with my NICU baby. Did you do skin to skin? What benefits did you experience?
If you can't tell, I'm pretty fascinated with this topic. Stay tuned for another article where I talk a little more about how and why I incorporate skin to skin into clinical practice!
Widström, A.-M., Brimdyr, K., Svensson, K., Cadwell, K. and Nissen, E. (2019), Skin-to-skin contact the first hour after birth, underlying implications and clinical practice. Acta Paediatr, 108: 1192-1204. https://doi.org/10.1111/apa.14754
Chen EM, Gau ML, Liu CY, Lee TY. Effects of Father-Neonate Skin-to-Skin Contact on Attachment: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Nurs Res Pract. 2017;2017:8612024. doi:10.1155/2017/8612024
Kerstin Erlandsson, RNM, MNursSci, Ann Dsilna, RN, BSc, Ingegerd Fagerberg, RNT, PhD, and Kyllike Christensson, RNM, PhD. (2007), Skin-to-Skin Care with the Father after Cesarean Birth and Its Effect on Newborn Crying and Prefeeding Behavior. Birth. 34:2, 105-114.