The Importance of Skin to Skin Contact

by Jack Newman, MD, FRCPC

There are now a multitude of studies that show that mothers and babies should be together, skin to skin (baby naked, not wrapped in a blanket) immediately after birth, as well as later. The baby is happier, the baby’s temperature is more stable and more normal, the baby’s heart and breathing rates are more stable and more normal, and the baby’s blood sugar is more elevated. Not only that, skin to skin contact immediately after birth allows the baby to be colonized by the same bacteria as the mother. This, plus breastfeeding, are thought to be important in the prevention of allergic diseases. When a baby is put into an incubator, his skin and gut are often colonized by bacteria different from his mother’s.

We now know that this is true not only for the baby born at term and in good health, but also even for the premature baby. Skin to skin contact and Kangaroo Mother Care can contribute much to the care of the premature baby. Even babies on oxygen can be cared for skin to skin, and this helps reduce their need for extra oxygen, and keeps them more stable in other ways as well. To appreciate the importance of keeping mother and baby skin to skin for as long as possible in these first few weeks of life (not just at feedings) it might help to understand that a human baby, like any mammal, has a natural habitat: in close contact with the mother (or father). When a baby or any mammal is taken out of this natural habitat, it shows all the physiologic signs of being under significant stress. A baby not in close contact with his mother (or father) by distance (under a heat lamp or in an incubator) or swaddled in a blanket, may become too sleepy or lethargic or becomes disassociated altogether or cry and protest in despair. When a baby is swaddled it cannot interact with his mother, the way nature intended. With skin to skin contact, the mother and the baby exchange sensory information that stimulates and elicits “baby” behaviour: rooting and searching the breast, staying calm, breathing more naturally, staying warm, maintaining his body temperature and maintaining his blood sugar. From the point of view of breastfeeding, babies who are kept skin to skin with the mother immediately after birth for at least an hour, are more likely to latch on without any help and they are more likely to latch on well, especially if the mother did not receive medication during the labour or birth.

As mentioned in the information sheet Breastfeeding—Starting out Right, a baby who latches on well gets milk more easily than a baby who latches on less well. See the video clips of young babies (less than 48 hours old) breastfeeding at the website nbci.ca. When a baby latches on well, the mother is less likely to be sore. When a mother’s milk is abundant, the baby can take the breast poorly and still get lots of milk, though the feedings may then be long or frequent or both, and the mother is more prone to develop problems such as blocked ducts and mastitis. In the first few days, however, the mother does have enough milk, but because it is not abundant, as nature intended, the baby needs a good latch in order to get that milk. Yes, the milk is there even if someone has proved to you with the big pump that there isn’t any. How much does or does not come out in the pump proves nothing—it is irrelevant. Many mothers with abundant milk supplies have difficulty expressing or pumping more than a small amount of milk. Also note, you can’t tell by squeezing the breast whether there is enough milk in there or not.

And a good latch is important to help the baby get the milk that is available. If the baby does not latch on well, the mother may be sore, and if the baby does not get milk well, the baby will want to be on the breast for long periods of time worsening the soreness. To recap, skin to skin contact immediately after birth, which lasts for at least an hour (and should continue for as many hours as possible throughout the day and night for the first number of weeks) has the following positive effects. The baby: