It’s on practically every birth plan template. Immediate skin to skin. Uninterrupted skin to skin for the first hour. Skin to skin in the OR. Why? Why is it so important to maintain skin contact with your baby? Lets take a look at the benefits of skin to skin after birth.
Something incredible happens when a baby is placed on its mother and left undisturbed after delivery. You just might find they embark on a journey known as the breast crawl.
The breast crawl is absolutely fascinating. A tiny baby, moments after birth, with absolutely no life experience or direction guiding them, will instinctively crawl to their mothers breast. From Breastcrawl.org:
The mother is the source of an array of olfactory, visual, auditory and tactile stimulation that the infant may perceive and respond to when placed on her bare chest. In an attempt to elucidate further the role of olfaction per se in early orientation to the breast, babies were observed when additional maternal cues (e.g. voice, skin temperature and texture, body form, heart and respiratory sounds and movement) were not available (Varendi and Porter, 2001). A total of 22 babies were observed during the two trials on a warming bed. In one trial, a pad carrying the mother’s breast odour was placed 17 cm in front of the baby’s nose. In the other trial, a clean pad was used. More babies moved towards and reached the breast pad than the clean pad. It was concluded that natural breast odours unsupported by other maternal stimuli are sufficient to attract and guide neonate to the source of odour.
It appears that amniotic fluid contains some substance that is similar to a certain secretion of the breast, albeit not the milk. The baby uses the taste and smell of amniotic fluid on its hands to make a connection with a certain lipid substance on the nipple related to the amniotic fluid.
To simplify, the feel and smell of their mother’s bare skin will trigger nursing instincts in the newborn. When placed skin to skin, even without attempting a full fledged breast crawl, your baby will start rooting. You can see an example of rooting in the above video. It’s a hunger cue, wherein the baby opens their mouth and begin pecking at a surface (in this case mom’s skin) searching for a nipple. Going skin to skin after birth is arguably the best tool we have for initiating early breastfeeding success. It simply helps facilitate your baby’s natural feeding instincts.
Mothers who hold their newborns skin to skin after birth have increased maternal behaviors, show more confidence in caring for their babies and breastfeed for longer durations. Being skin to skin with mother protects the newborn from the well-documented negative effects of separation, supports optimal brain development and facilitates attachment, which promotes the infant’s self-regulation over time.
Quite simply, skin to skin time helps mothers and babies bond. Babies cry less, and feel more secure when held close to their mother’s skin. Mothers feel more confident. It simply feels good to hold your baby close. To let those bonding hormones wash over you. To watch how your baby responds to your touch. It helps your baby feel like your baby, and you to feel like their mother.
Microbiome, heart rate, and body temperature
Skin to skin feels great on an emotional level, but it also facilitates an impressive chain of physical events. Immediate skin to skin after birth provides almost a second pregnancy. Your touch takes over so many of the functions your baby relied on within you. Your baby’s body temperature will regulate based on proximity to your body heat. Their heart rate will regulate, taking its cues from yours. Babies held skin to skin have better oxygenation. Babies are born largely internally sterile, and when they’re handled exclusively by medical staff in those early moments, their gut becomes colonized by the bacteria of the staff. Most of the bacteria transfer between mother and baby occurs in the birth canal, which makes bacterial colonization a special concern for surgically delivered babies. When a baby is held skin to skin with their mother, they become colonized by her bacteria. This is extremely beneficial, as baby will become instantly accustomed to the good bacteria hosted by their family, their home, their family’s diet.
For all these reasons and more, skin to skin isn’t just for healthy, term, vaginally delivered babies. As the incredible benefits of skin to skin become more apparent, more and more hospitals are implementing kangaroo care for sick and premature infants, and adopting skin to skin in the OR following cesarean birth.
The “other” parent
If you aren’t the birthing partner, all the above benefits still apply to you! The sole exception being breastfeeding for co parents without breasts, or who are uninterested in lactating. The bonding, warming, regulating benefits are a wonderful gift to your baby. When the birthing parent is unable to go skin to skin due to medical concerns or hospital policy, consider taking over. This is also a great option when the birthing parent is feeling emotionally overwhelmed, uninterested in skin to skin time, or simply needs to trade off and jump in the shower. Watch out for chest hair, dads. My partner learned some hard lessons about grip reflexes and body hair!
Like any other birth planning decision, skin to skin is your call. Not everyone is comfortable with the idea of tucking a tiny human being into their shirt, and that’s okay. Make the right choice for you, and your family. As always, talk to your care team for more information.