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For Newborns, Skin-to-Skin Contact Is Best

Giving a new baby a bath and wrapping it in cozy blankets may seem like the natural thing to do after birth, but a host of research has shown the benefits of skin-to-skin contact for newborns and their moms. 

“The benefits that are the most well-known are that it improves breastfeeding outcomes and bonding,” said Angela Chisholm, a certified nurse midwife with Samaritan Obstetrics & Gynecology in Corvallis. “But those actually aren’t the most striking benefits. With skin-to-skin contact, studies also show improved brain development and physiological markers.”

For babies, being born is a difficult transition. Physiological markers such as breathing rate, temperature, blood sugar levels and heart rate all show how stable the baby’s health is, and Chisholm reports those markers are better when the baby is being held skin-to-skin verses in a bassinet or infant warmer. 

“Historically in the hospital setting, babies are born and then they are weighed and measured, dried off and cleaned up, wrapped in a blanket and handed back to mom,” she said. “But now we know that separation can lead to a drop in blood sugar levels and temperature, and it could contribute to the baby needing more medical intervention than if we just put them on mom’s chest right away.” 

Because of the overwhelming evidence-based research supporting the value of skin-to-skin care, Samaritan hospitals are examining ways to help support the practice.

“A few years ago, if somebody said to me that skin-to-skin was very important to them after birth, I would tell them that we could try to make sure it would happen, but there wasn’t any guarantee that the mom would be able to have that experience right away, especially with a C-section. Now, as the hospital reviews policies and barriers, we can say that skin-to-skin is the expectation and anything else would be an exception,” said Chisholm.

Skin-to-skin with a newborn, also called kangaroo care, is most important in the first two hours after birth, and then for 90-minute sessions several times a day for the first three to four weeks of life, according to Chisholm. 

For moms who are breastfeeding, that is a natural way to get close to your baby several times a day. For moms who are not, being purposeful about skin-to-skin contact is especially important.

“Tummy to tummy, where you really maximize surface area, seems to be the best position,” said Chisholm. “There is a practical issue of teaching people how to do it properly. We want babies to be held but we also want to teach families the importance of proper infant positioning during skin-to-skin and to avoid distractions like smartphone use. Additionally, it is important for mom to be awake during skin-to-skin or have someone observe if she is fatigued.”

Chisholm also encourages dads to get skin-to-skin with their babies, stating that warmth and bonding are just as important from fathers. The journal Birth published a study showing that cesarean section babies who were held skin-to-skin by their fathers had improved crying and feeding behaviors compared to those who were cared for on a conventional cot in the hospital nursery. 

“At this point, the research has been around for more than 40 years. If this were an antibiotic and we weren’t offering it, people would say that we were way out of date,” said Chisholm. “There is no evidence that being skin-to-skin is harmful and a lot of evidence that it’s beneficial.”

Learn more about taking care of your new baby at a class.