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Skin-to-skin contact, often referred to as “kangaroo care,” is the practice of placing a newborn baby directly on the caregiver’s bare chest, allowing for skin-to-skin contact. This practice has numerous benefits for both the infant and the parent. In this article, you’ll learn how to perform skin-to-skin contact and what the benefits are.

What Is Skin-to-Skin?

Skin-to-skin is a practice that involves placing the naked baby (often wearing a diaper) on the bare chest of the caregiver. This practice is commonly initiated immediately after birth and can be done as frequently as feasible throughout infancy.

A premature infant lays on a man's bare chest.Many parents believe that the benefits of skin-to-skin are only attainable if the practice is done immediately after birth during what is often called “The Golden Hour.” However, it is important for parents to know that skin-to-skin is beneficial throughout the first year of life (1). Additionally, skin-to-skin care can be performed by the mother, father, adoptive parents, or even a trusted grandparent or friend (2).

How Is Newborn Skin-to-Skin Performed?

Newborn skin to skin care can be done in many ways — the trick is to get your baby’s naked skin up against your bare chest. This can (and should, if possible) be done immediately after birth (3), but it can also be done any time throughout your baby’s infancy with your baby in a soft carrier while you care for other children or go about your day! It can be as simple as a contact nap, or a shared bath, or just topless nursing or bottle feeding a few times a day. As with many things in parenting, the best way to go about skin-to-skin care is to find a way to fit it into your life and habits. 

Looking to learn more about newborn care? You might like these articles: Delayed Umbilical Cord Clamping: The Benefits & Risks, Co-Sleeping 101: Benefits, Risk Factors, & Safety Guidelines and All About Vernix: Should It Be Washed Off? 

What Are The Benefits Of Skin-to-Skin Contact?

Skin-to-skin contact provides a range of benefits that support both the infant’s and the parent’s well-being. Here are the primary benefits:

Supports Bonding and Emotional Connection

One of the most immediate and significant benefits of skin-to-skin contact is the bonding between the mother and the newborn. The close physical proximity facilitates the release of oxytocin, also known as the “love hormone,” which promotes maternal affection and bonding (4). This hormonal response not only strengthens the emotional connection but also supports maternal behaviors and lactation and reduces stress and anxiety in new mothers​​​​ and babies (4).

Stabilizes Newborn Health

Newborns placed skin-to-skin with their mothers show improved physiological stability. This practice helps regulate the baby’s heart rate (5), breathing (6), and body temperature (7). The warmth of the mother’s body acts as a natural incubator, keeping the baby warm and reducing the risk of hypothermia​​​​ (8). Additionally, skin-to-skin contact stabilizes blood glucose levels in newborns (9), which is crucial for their energy and overall health​​.

Promotes Breastfeeding

Skin-to-skin contact has been shown to significantly improve breastfeeding outcomes (10,11,12). The practice encourages early initiation of breastfeeding, often within the first hour after birth, which is critical for establishing a successful breastfeeding relationship (12).

An undressed baby breastfeeds while laying on the mother's bare chest.The close contact stimulates the baby’s natural rooting and sucking reflexes, making it easier for the infant to latch onto the breast correctly​​. Studies have demonstrated that mothers who engage in skin-to-skin contact are more likely to exclusively breastfeed and continue breastfeeding for a longer duration (12)​​.

Reduces Infant Crying and Stress

Babies who experience skin-to-skin contact tend to cry less and show lower levels of stress (13). The comfort and security provided by the mother’s presence help soothe the infant, reducing cortisol levels, which are indicative of stress​​. This calming effect not only makes the baby more content but also supports better sleep patterns, contributing to the overall well-being of the newborn​​ (13).

Supports Maternal Mental Health

For mothers, skin-to-skin contact can play a role in reducing the risk of postpartum depression (14). The physical closeness and the release of feel good hormones like oxytocin can enhance maternal mood and even decrease feelings of depression and anxiety (14)​​. 

Benefits Health of Preterm Infants

Skin-to-skin contact is especially beneficial for preterm infants, who are more vulnerable to changes in body temperature and blood glucose levels. Kangaroo care has been associated with improved preterm infant survival rates (15), better weight gain (15), and shorter hospital stays for preterm babies (15). The practice also promotes neurological development (13) and some research shows it reduces the incidence of infections​​ by improving the infant’s skin barrier function (16). 

The data shows that skin-to-skin is safe in preterm infants even if they are on supplemental oxygen and/or have a central venous line (17). Many NICUs have embraced skin-to-skin as a standard of care for infants in the NICU (18), and The World Health Organization has updated their official recommendation to include immediate skin to skin care at birth for preterm infants (15).

Advocating for Skin-to-Skin Time

My wish is for all parents to feel comfortable in advocating for skin-to-skin time, especially in hospital settings where standard procedures might differ. Parents can start by discussing their desire for immediate and frequent skin-to-skin contact with their healthcare providers during prenatal visits. It’s important to include this preference in the birth plan and ensure that your birth partner and all medical staff involved are aware. 

For cesarean births, mothers can request to have the baby placed on their chest as soon as possible, even while still in the operating room if their condition allows. For births at home or in birth centers, skin-to-skin care tends to already be the standard, but discussing skin-to-skin care with your midwife ensures that everyone is prepared to support this practice. 

Being informed and assertive can help ensure that you and your newborn receive the full benefits of skin-to-skin contact from the very start.

Summary

The benefits of skin-to-skin contact, also known as kangaroo care, are profound and multifaceted, impacting both the physical health and emotional well-being of newborns and their mothers. This practice fosters a strong bond between parents and baby, regulates physiological functions, promotes successful breastfeeding, reduces stress, and supports maternal mental health. If you’re the parent of a little one, enjoy those newborn snuggles and know that every minute you spend in kangaroo care with your baby is a minute well spent!

References:

  1. The Benefits of Skin-to-Skin at Home. (n.d.). Www.texashealth.org. https://www.texashealth.org/baby-care/Infancy/the-benefits-of-skin-to-skin-at-home
  2. Erlandsson K, Dsilna A, Fagerberg I, Christensson K. Skin-to-skin care with the father after cesarean birth and its effect on newborn crying and prefeeding behavior. Birth. 2007 Jun;34(2):105-14. doi: 10.1111/j.1523-536X.2007.00162.x. PMID: 17542814.
  3. Widström AM, Brimdyr K, Svensson K, Cadwell K, Nissen E. Skin-to-skin contact the first hour after birth, underlying implications and clinical practice. Acta Paediatr. 2019 Jul;108(7):1192-1204. doi: 10.1111/apa.14754. Epub 2019 Mar 13. PMID: 30762247; PMCID: PMC6949952.
  4. Bigelow AE, Power M. Mother-Infant Skin-to-Skin Contact: Short- and Long-Term Effects for Mothers and Their Children Born Full-Term. Front Psychol. 2020 Aug 28;11:1921. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2020.01921. PMID: 32982827; PMCID: PMC7485314.
  5. Swieter E, Gross JM, Stephen J, Watterberg K, Maxwell JR. Pilot study shows skin-to-skin care with parents improves heart rate variability in preterm infants in the neonatal intensive care unit. Front Pediatr. 2023 Sep 18;11:1269405. doi: 10.3389/fped.2023.1269405. PMID: 37790693; PMCID: PMC10544889.
  6. Lee J, Parikka V, Lehtonen L, Soukka H. Parent-infant skin-to-skin contact reduces the electrical activity of the diaphragm and stabilizes respiratory function in preterm infants. Pediatr Res. 2022 Apr;91(5):1163-1167. doi: 10.1038/s41390-021-01607-2. Epub 2021 Jun 4. PMID: 34088986; PMCID: PMC8176875.
  7. Beiranvand S, Valizadeh F, Hosseinabadi R, Pournia Y. The Effects of Skin-to-Skin Contact on Temperature and Breastfeeding Successfulness in Full-Term Newborns after Cesarean Delivery. Int J Pediatr. 2014;2014:846486. doi: 10.1155/2014/846486. Epub 2014 Dec 25. PMID: 25610472; PMCID: PMC4291124.
  8. Kardum D, Bell EF, Grčić BF, Müller A. Duration of skin-to-skin care and rectal temperatures in late preterm and term infants. BMC Pregnancy Childbirth. 2022 Aug 20;22(1):655. doi: 10.1186/s12884-022-04983-7. PMID: 35987566; PMCID: PMC9392909.
  9. Takahashi Y, Tamakoshi K. The Positive Association Between Duration of Skin-to-Skin Contact and Blood Glucose Level in Full-Term Infants. J Perinat Neonatal Nurs. 2018 Oct/Dec;32(4):351-357. doi: 10.1097/JPN.0000000000000335. PMID: 29782439.
  10. Widström AM, Brimdyr K, Svensson K, Cadwell K, Nissen E. Skin-to-skin contact the first hour after birth, underlying implications and clinical practice. Acta Paediatr. 2019 Jul;108(7):1192-1204. doi: 10.1111/apa.14754. Epub 2019 Mar 13. PMID: 30762247; PMCID: PMC6949952.
  11. Breastfeeding Info Skin-to-Skin Care. (n.d.). Llli.org. https://llli.org/breastfeeding-info/skin-skin-care/
  12. Huang JZ, Chen CN, Lee CP, Kao CH, Hsu HC, Chou AK. Evaluation of the Effects of Skin-to-Skin Contact on Newborn Sucking, and Breastfeeding Abilities: A Quasi-Experimental Study Design. Nutrients. 2022 Apr 28;14(9):1846. doi: 10.3390/nu14091846. PMID: 35565813; PMCID: PMC9101996.
  13. Selman SB, Dilworth-Bart J, Selman HŞ, Cook JG, Duncan LG. Skin-to-skin contact and infant emotional and cognitive development in chronic perinatal distress. Early Hum Dev. 2020 Dec;151:105182. doi: 10.1016/j.earlhumdev.2020.105182. Epub 2020 Sep 7. PMID: 32977205; PMCID: PMC8536803.
  14. Badr HA, Zauszniewski JA. Kangaroo care and postpartum depression: The role of oxytocin. Int J Nurs Sci. 2017 Jan 5;4(2):179-183. doi: 10.1016/j.ijnss.2017.01.001. PMID: 31406740; PMCID: PMC6626107.
  15. WHO Immediate KMC Study Group. (2021). Immediate “Kangaroo Mother Care” and Survival of Infants with Low Birth Weight. New England Journal of Medicine, 384(21), 2028–2038. https://doi.org/10.1056/nejmoa2026486
  16. Abouelfettoh A, Ludington-Hoe SM, Burant CJ, Visscher MO. Effect of skin-to-skin contact on preterm infant skin barrier function and hospital-acquired infection. J Clin Med Res. 2011 Feb 12;3(1):36-46. doi: 10.4021/jocmr479w. PMID: 22043270; PMCID: PMC3194024.
  17. Bedetti L, Lugli L, Bertoncelli N, Spaggiari E, Garetti E, Lucaccioni L, Cipolli F, Berardi A. Early Skin-to-Skin Contact in Preterm Infants: Is It Safe? An Italian Experience. Children (Basel). 2023 Mar 17;10(3):570. doi: 10.3390/children10030570. PMID: 36980127; PMCID: PMC10047376.
  18. Baley, J. (2015). Skin-to-Skin Care for Term and Preterm Infants in the Neonatal ICU. PEDIATRICS, 136(3), 596–599. https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2015-2335
Dr. Green Mom

Dr. Mayer is a naturopathic medical doctor and an expert in nutrition and wellness as it relates to pediatrics and families. Her passion for prevention of disease as cure fueled her desire to immerse herself into specializing in adult onset chronic conditions as well as childhood chronic illness.

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