The Importance of Mother-Baby Skin-to-Skin Contact

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By Meg Heather Ford

At the start of the 20th century as birth moved away from the home and care of midwives and into the hospital and realm of the trained obstetrician, a (perhaps unintended?) consequence was the routine separation of mother and baby immediately after delivery. Increasingly, science is confirming what standard midwifery care has long practiced: that honoring the instinctive mother baby attachment is in fact optimal for many aspects of both maternal and newborn health.

In other words, how we welcome our babies into this world matters. So why is skin-to-skin care so important?

1. Improves physiologic stability for mother and baby

We know that the womb provides the essential environment for the initial development of all unborn mammals. The uterus, along with the umbilical cord and placenta provide warmth, protection, nutrition and oxygenation. It follows then that the mother’s body is the natural habitat for all newly born mammals and is where development continues. A mother’s body and specifically her chest and breast milk provide an externalized version of the womb offering continued warmth, protection, nutrition and support for oxygenation.

Even in the event of a cesarean section and/or various circumstances that may not allow for immediate contact with mother, dads or other partners can provide skin-to-skin care which will help stabilize baby’s temperature, glucose levels and decrease crying and stress.

2. Increases maternal attachment behaviors

We now know that attachment is biologically primed and that there are many biochemical activators that trigger maternal caregiving. Let’s just focus on oxytocin, famously referred to as the ‘love hormone’ as it is triggered during times of intimacy and connection: orgasm, breastfeeding, birth and even when we are in the company of close friends. A women’s oxytocin levels are highest when giving birth and for very good reason: it helps contract the uterus (protecting against postpartum hemorrhage), release colostrum/milk and increases maternal bonding, relaxation, attraction and facial recognition.

3. Protects Baby from Negative Effects of Separation

Dr. Marshall Klaus in his book Your Amazing Newborn, illuminates the extent to which the mother baby dyad is a single psychobiological organism. The advent of separation, then, is experienced as truly life threatening for the baby. The baby’s response to separation is universal. Loud cries and intense activity are designed to attract mothers attention. This frantic crying can harm baby in several ways by impairing lung function, increasing intra-cranial pressure as well as initiating a cascade of stress hormones. Should this protest go unheeded, the baby then moves into the despair response in which babies’ cries stop, movement slows (likely an instinctive adaptation to avoid attention of a predator) and all biological systems begin to slow causing decreased temperature, heart rate and metabolism.

4. Supports optimal infant brain development

Skin-to-skin contact initiates nerve impulses to the brain that helps activate the amygdala. Part of the limbic system, the amygdala is in a critical period of development during the first 2 months after birth and is responsible for emotional learning, memory modulation as well as activation of the sympathetic nervous system. Put simply, touch and brain development go hand in hand as it allows a flow of information from mother to baby and baby to mother. Attachment is specifically crucial to the development of the right brain.

Ultimately, anything that promotes mother-infant attachment will also promote optimal brain development – and as we have so far examined, immediate skin-to-skin is a significant precursor to a strong maternal bond.

5. Increases breastfeeding rates and duration

In all mammals, infants are responsible for initiating feeding. And this instinctive behavior occurs when babies are in the right place! Thanks to the remarkable work of Anne-Marie

Given, the realities of a hospital environment and the many things that are ‘done’ to babies after delivery, it is easy to understand how easy it is for crucial skin-to-skin time to be interrupted. We also know that if we are determined to increase rates of successful breastfeeding, then the place to start is with changing routine protocols to allow for an hour of skin-to-skin time directly after birth.

Naturally, safety will always trump skin-to skin-contact should the wellbeing of either baby or mother be in doubt. And, more importantly, if immediate skin-to-skin cannot happen for whatever reason – it is never too late to honor the value of skin-to-skin contact, whenever it can happen, and the crucial bonding and numerous benefits both physical, emotional and neuro-developmental it provides.

I can imagine the mothers reading this and getting upset or panicking or judging themselves or others should their own birth experience not have allowed for this skin-to-skin time. I think it is important to focus on the fact that maternal-infant bonding is primal and can happen successfully in many different ways under many different circumstances.

And should this bond not have unfolded immediately after birth, it is never too late and never impossible to heal.

Honoring this sacred time for mother and baby is so easy and simple to do. For home births, it is the standard of care. But in a hospital setting where the hustle and bustle of staff and checklists and beeping machines so easily distract us – we need to remember what is really happening in the room. A new being has just entered the world and if we want to do our best to honor and support that new life, then we need to let baby and mama do what they are naturally primed to do: be together and thrive.

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