The Importance of Skin-to-Skin Contact Following Birth

31 December, 2019
Skin-to-skin contact after a baby's birth consists of placing the newborn on the mother's bare chest in order to avoid unnecessary separation. Read more about this important practice.

Have you heard of skin-to-skin contact? Otherwise known as kangaroo care, it involves placing a newborn baby on his or her mother’s bare chest. This contact should take place right away as soon as the baby is born.

The idea is to prevent any unnecessary separation between the mother and child following delivery. Any other routine activities can wait since the baby doesn’t need any of those things at this precise moment.

A distinction exists between immediate skin-to-skin contact and early skin-to-skin contact. The first takes place immediately after a child is born. The second occurs within the first half-hour after the baby’s birth.

When babies are born, hospitals traditionally carry out a series of routine practices. These include bathing, weighing and dressing little ones. It also involves putting on their identification bracelets or anklets and placing them under a heat lamp.

Today, however, more and more hospitals are establishing skin-to-skin contact as part of their protocol. First, these institutions must take a close look at the routines they carry out with newborns. Then, they should modify their protocol to eliminate unnecessary practices and delay those that aren’t urgent… except in special cases where babies need them. These hospitals prioritize skin-to-skin contact over traditional routines.

In the case of birth by C-section, some hospitals allow kangaroo care right in the operation room. Other institutions allow fathers or another person of the mother’s choosing to be the first to offer skin-to-skin contact.

The Importance of Skin-to-Skin Contact Following Birth

The history behind kangaroo care

Pediatricians Edgar Rey and Hector Martinez first came up with the kangaroo care method in 1979. at San Juan de Dios Hospital in Bogotá, Colombia. They initiated this method as part of their protocol for caring for premature babies.

In the face of a lack of means in their country, they created this alternative to traditional incubators. They were inspired by the way mother kangaroos care for their young.

In developing countries, studies have shown numerous benefits. For example, a decrease in the number of infections, an easier time with breastfeeding. What’s more, women who use the kangaroo method experience more self-confidence.

In South Africa, a pediatrician and neonatologist by the name of Dr. Nils Bergman introduced this method in the 80s. According to Bergman, the first minutes in the lives of newborns mark the rest of their existence.

“In healing, the most expensive interventions are not necessarily the most effective. A mother’s body is the best machine ever intended: It provides nutrition, warmth, glucose, brain development, optimism and health at a minimal cost.”

– Dr. Nils Bergman –

Skin-to-skin contact makes up part of the 10 steps of the “Initiative for a More Human Birth and Lactation Care.” This initiative has spread around the world with the support of The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the World Health Organization (WHO).

During every era of human history, mothers have offered their newborns protection, warmth, social stimulus, and nutrition. However, modern medical perinatal practices impose patterns of early separation between mothers and their babies.

The benefits of skin-to-skin contact

A wide variety of studies demonstrate that skin-to-skin contact is more beneficial for newborns than time in an incubator.

  • The kangaroo care method allows newborns to better adapt to their new external environment. It improves oxygenation and stabilizes heart rate and breathing. It also reduces the time that little ones spend crying after they’re born.
  • Stabilizes body temperature.
  • Increases the possibilities of the success of breastfeeding and attachment. A study of healthy full-term and pre-term births in New York demonstrated this. Of all of the participating mothers, 72% expressed a desire to breastfeed. However, of this 72%, only 28% actually went on to do so, and the rest ended up bottle feeding. Of this 28%, all had practiced kangaroo care in the delivery room.
  • Increases oxytocin levels, which have an anti-stress effect on mothers, improving the contractility of the uterus and favoring the ejection of colostrum.
  • Favors the colonization of newborns through maternal germs.
The Importance of Skin-to-Skin Contact Following Birth

 

The effects of separating newborns from their mothers

The premature separation of newborns from their mothers has a series of negative effects that are important to avoid. For example:

  • Makes attachment more difficult: Separating a newborn from their mother produces stunting in the development of a baby’s recognition of their mother’s scent.
  • Slows down the recovery from the stress of birth.
  • Increases the amount of energy required for the newborn’s metabolic adaptation and slows down this process. The separation causes hypothermia in newborns, which they try to counteract by producing peripheral vasoconstriction. This entails greater glucose consumption and metabolic acidosis.
  • Newborn babies who undergo premature separation from their mothers sleep less and cry more.  
  • These babies also have a harder time with breastfeeding. When newborns miss out on the “sacred hour,” they lose the opportunity to reach their mother’s breasts on their own.

More consequences of separating newborns from their mothers

Most newborn animals who are separated from their mothers and then brought back are rejected. In fact, their mothers may even kill them. While the consequences are less dramatic when it comes to humans, they’re still something we need to take seriously.

Human mothers spend 9 months awaiting a wave of love and maternal pride. Unfortunately, they often encounter something very unexpected: Separation. It’s all too common for mothers to have to wait to hold and spend time with their newborn babies. And it’s easy to understand how frustrating and discouraging this is.

What’s more, birth is a stressful process for babies, and they need to recover. To do so, they need their mothers and familiar sounds like her breathing and the beating of her heart in order to feel safe. Therefore, we can’t overlook or underestimate a technique that’s so simple, cost-free, and with so many benefits… for both mother and child. 

As you can see, it’s so important for future mothers to become aware of the importance of skin-to-skin contact. If you’re expecting, you should discuss the issue with your OB/GYN when creating your birth plan. What’s more, be sure to investigate the protocols that are in place at the hospital where you will be giving birth.

  • A Gp, Aguayo Maldonado J, Sánchez Pinuaga M. (n.d.).Contacto piel con piel inmediato para recién nacidos a término. Mesa redonda. Hospital Universitari De Tarragona “Joan XXIII”.
  • Gómez Papí A, Baiges Nogués M, Marca Gutiérrez A, Batiste Fernández M, Nieto Jurado A, Closa Monasterolo R. (1998). Método canguro en sala de partos en recién nacidos a término. Medicina Fetal Y Neonatología.48(6).
  • Cochrane. https://www.cochrane.org. [ONLINE].; 2019 [CITED 1 2 2019. Available from: https://www.cochrane.org/es/cd003519/contacto-piel-piel-temprano-para-las-madres-y-sus-recien-nacidos-sanos