The Benefits of Skin to Skin Contact
By Salli Gonzalez, LM
Skin to skin contact after birth.
You’ve heard of it, maybe you’ve even had the experience of your baby in close contact with you, on your breast, all wet and warm immediately after birth.
But, what does it mean exactly? What are the benefits of having baby placed all wet from the womb, right onto his mother’s chest immediately after birth? How big an impact is there, really?
The first benefit and maybe one of the most lasting benefits of skin to skin contact is the production of oxytocin. Oxytocin is our love hormone. We manufacture it pretty much on a daily basis. When we share a meal with family, when we worship in song, when we share a joke and a laugh. When we make love. It’s understandable why we crave this amazing hormone, isn’t it? And oxytocin, is a major hormone of labor, oxytocin causes the uterus to contract, to get the baby out. It strengthens as the laboring mother is loved herself, as she is made to feel secure, protected and cared for. And all the while the baby in utero is manufacturing this hormone as well.
So it stands to reason, that this amazing love hormone should be continued to be manufactured even after the baby is out. As the baby emerges from the canal, as the baby’s head is stretching the mother’s perineum to its maximum circumference, the love hormone will reach its maximum surge that the mother has experienced thus far. As the baby emerges, the mother will scoop her baby into her arms and hold him close. Her arms will encircle him, protect him, and embrace him. That same hormone will be surging throughout his body, effectively giving him the will be here on this earth. As the mother pulls him close, he is meeting his mother for the first time on the outside, his wet, warm little body is nestled next to her breast as he navigates breathing for the first time in his life. That skin to skin contact keeps that oxytocin flowing, for both mama and baby, which in turn creates an aura of love and harmony as baby meets his family, takes his first breaths, and feels life in a whole new way. (See the benefits of skin to skin contact, kangaroomothercare.com)
As this oxytocin continues to surge, the baby’s breathing stabilizes, his heart rate stabilizes, his temperature begins to regulate. The baby then begins to nuzzle his mother’s breast turning his head toward her breast in what is known as the rooting reflex. As the baby nuzzles, the mother will ask, “Do you think he wants to nurse?” And, instinctively, she gently turns him toward her breast as he continues to root and nuzzle, opening his mouth wide for the offered nipple. The mother’s uterus then begins the work of expelling the placenta, aided by that powerful hormone that just helped her push her baby out. Oxytocin is again manufactured as the baby suckles at the breast and helps the uterus contract to first expel the placenta and then help shear off the vessels that once fed the placenta nutrient rich blood.
Other benefits of skin to skin contact are just as life giving. These include, help in regulation of baby’s temperature, which is regulated by the mother’s temperature. The mother’s temperature will rise or fall in small increments as it meets the needs of the baby, to help him in his own thermoregulation. Skin to skin contact will facilitate this.
As the baby contacts his mother’s skin with his hands, his body and his mouth, bacteria from the outside world comes into contact with him for the first time. He will ingest this bacteria which will become his own gut flora in the coming days. Ingesting his mother’s colostrum, the baby’s gut is lined with beneficial nutrients and proteins. These not only nourish him, but help him eliminate meconium and line his gut with protective nutrients, bacteria, enzymes and growth factors. Continued and constant contact with the mother skin to skin in the coming days and even weeks will ensure baby’s wellbeing, as he transitions to life outside the womb. In the coming days, weeks and even months, the baby will be comforted and empowered by the smell, touch and warmth of his mother’s breasts and torso. The taste and smell of her skin will give him comfort, familiarity. Oxytocin, the love hormone will continue to be surging as the baby and mother get to know each other. The contact with her warm skin will let him know she is near, her loving touch will strengthen him, comfort him, and give him security. And conversely, she will continue to manufacture antibodies to all that he comes in contact with on her skin from the outside world, thus protecting him from illness and diseases in the coming months.
Continued contact with the breast will also encourage the mother’s milk production, which is why midwives and lactation consultants encourage skin to skin contact to encourage production in the case of a lagging milk supply.
Father’s also benefit from skin to skin contact. In our practice, we encourage the father to take his shirt off just before the baby is placed into his arms to hold while mother is getting comfortable in the bed. When given his turn, the father also manufactures his own oxytocin, his heat will help the baby regulate his temperature too, while waiting to place baby back into his mother’s arms. This can be a special time for the father as he inhales the scent of his new baby, activating his own limbic system to help with bonding him to his child. When implementing Kangaroo Mother Care in hospitals, fathers are encouraged to hold their babies skin to skin on their chests when the mother needs a shower or a break to get a meal. Kangaroo care fosters the same benefits as stated above, helping baby, even sick and premature babies regulate their temperature, heart rate and breathing, helping them heal and go home from the hospital much quicker. (kangaroomothercare.com)
An action as simple as skin to skin contact, immediately after birth and even beyond in the ensuing months has amazing and lasting benefits. Immediately after birth as both mother and baby are transitioning to this life on earth, and beyond, as their love and connection strengthen and grows.
The benefits of skin to skin contact, an action so simple, yet so profound.