Written by Judith Heaney, February 2020
The birth of a baby begins the amazing journey of parenting, but before you get too far ahead of yourself on that journey planning first foods and college savings, take these moments to feed that instinct simply to snuggle down with your babe and breathe in your newborn’s sweetness.
That instinct to simply be and cradle your newborn to your chest meets important needs for both parent and baby, especially when done skin to skin. The time spent skin to skin begins the important attachment process that provides immediate and long-term benefits.
For those unfamiliar with it, this skin to skin process has long been known as kangaroo care because it mimics the care and carrying of a baby kangaroo in its mother’s pouch. Initially introduced in the 1970s in Bogotá, Columbia to address the deaths of preterm infants, researchers soon discovered a baby cradled skin to skin on its mother’s chest not only grew, but thrived because a baby naturally responds to its mother.
In other words, your baby’s heart and respiratory rates stabilize in response to your heartbeat and breathing when you are skin to skin. Additionally, your skin helps regulate your newborn’s body temperature. In fact, a mother’s breasts change in temperature depending on her baby’s needs. If the baby is warm, the breast temperature decreases and if the baby’s body temperature lowers, the mother’s breasts will become warmer, allowing the baby to rest comfortably.
Because of this natural design, kangaroo care becomes an incredible asset for preterm babies. Rather than removing the baby immediately to an incubator, research demonstrates that skin to skin contact provides the necessary warming benefits but brings additional advantages as well. Resting in the mother’s, partner’s, or caregiver’s warmth allows the newborn’s body to conserve calories that can then be directed toward growth and weight gain. Skin to skin contact also raises oxygen saturation rates, providing all the cells with the oxygen they need to meet the body’s needs.
But perhaps one of the most powerful benefits for babies, whether preterm or full-term, is the effect on breastfeeding. Babies are naturally wired for breastfeeding, and they are already intimately familiar with the mother – her scent, her sound, her rhythms – having spent nine months inside her womb. Therefore, when placed skin to skin on the mother’s chest, the baby knows she’s safe. Even more, when an infant is placed immediately and directly on the mother’s chest, research shows that the newborn will find its way to the mother’s breast and begin to suckle within 20 minutes.
Skin to skin contact supports a mother’s milk production and provides a positive start to the breastfeeding relationship through this intimate bonding process. When mothers are encouraged simply to hold their babies skin to skin, they become more confident more quickly in their ability to care for, nurture and meet their baby’s needs. As well, a snug kangaroo care wrap in which the infant is wrapped to mother using a fabric wrap or blanket provides a wonderful sense of the womb and a deep pressure touch that sends positive messages to the emotional-processing part of the baby’s brain – the amygdala – reassuring a sense of absolute trust and safety.
Again, the strength of this bond between mother, and her partner (because partners also should be encouraged to spend time skin to skin with their newborn) has been shown to create long-lasting and immediate effects. These include babies who cry less often (because their needs are being met and they feel safe), babies whose sleep patterns are more regulated (because they are warm and snug), and increased weight gain (because their bodies are warm and safe and the body’s energy can focus on growth and weight gain).
But, what does kangaroo care look like? Rest assured, it is not complicated and is a positive experience for both parents and their newborn. Mothers can begin skin to skin immediately after birth, whether at home or in the hospital (except in extreme cases where an infant requires medical interventions or surgeries; but, even then, starting kangaroo care as soon as the baby is able will provide the same benefits and opportunity to catch up). This immediate attachment helps infants transition from the womb into the world.
Both mothers and their partners can provide skin to skin kangaroo care. Simply dress the baby in a diaper and a knit hat, lay her on the caregiver’s bare chest, cover the baby with a blanket, and relax together. There are no limits on skin to skin contact, however, parents should plan to hold their baby using kangaroo care for at least one hour at a time at least four times a week in order to facilitate attachment of baby and caregiver. And although started at birth, parents should continue skin to skin during the infant’s early weeks of development.
There truly is no better way to begin your parenting relationship than with skin to skin contact. It helps regulate the baby’s newly transitioned systems, encourages the mother’s milk production, and supports growth and weight gain. But perhaps even more importantly, it builds an important bond between the baby and her caregivers that instills confidence and attachment that will help guide this new family through the developing years of growth and milestones to come.