All humans need touch, but babies need it most. The remarkable health and emotional benefits of skin-to-skin contact have been discussed elsewhere on baby gooroo and amount to one undeniable fact: it is every baby’s desire to be held in close contact—skin-to-skin—with their mother. Which is why it is imperative that all mothers, unless medically contraindicated, have an opportunity to hold their babies immediately after birth. Once removed from their mother’s chest, a baby will likely cry—emitting a sort of distress call—in hopes of being reunited with his trusted source of security, nourishment, warmth, and support.
Although skin-to-skin care (also called “kangaroo care”) was originally developed in 1978 as a desperate move to save premature babies in resource-poor hospitals that lacked enough incubators, over the years, research has shown that skin-to-skin care benefits healthy, full-term babies as well. (We’ve also learned that dads can, and should, engage in the practice too (more on this later!).
Whether you are aiming to regulate the cardiovascular and respiratory function, enhance communication, calm a hungry or weary child, relieve pain and stress, or enhance bonding, skin-to-skin provides a host of benefits for babies—and their parents.
While skin-to-skin care may start at the hospital, there are many ways to keep it going at home.
Here are 10 ways to do skin-to-skin care—immediately after birth and beyond:
1. Hold your baby right after birth.
The first hour (or more!) after birth provides a wonderful opportunity to begin skin-to-skin care. The mother is typically eager to touch and hold her baby close; the baby is similarly eager to be in contact with her mother. There should be no rush to remove the baby from the mother’s arms. Ethnographer Kajsa Brimdyr, PhD, CLC describes nine stages (called the “magical hour”) that every baby goes through immediately after birth:
- the birth cry
Babies progress from one stage to the next with the easiest possible transition when they have skin-to-skin contact with their mother. Of course, if a mother is unable to provide skin-to-skin care right away, the baby’s father can assume the role. About one-third of births in U.S. hospitals occur as cesarean deliveries, and some hospitals are reluctant to provide immediate skin-to-skin care for mom and baby in this situation. Dad can fill in until the mother is able to do so. So-called “gentle cesareans” or “natural cesareans” are becoming increasingly available, and these do aim to get the baby skin-to-skin with his mother as soon as possible. (It’s a good idea for expectant parents to discuss this option with health care providers during the prenatal visits.)
2. Room in with your baby.
Standard practice used to relegate the baby to the nursery so that the mother could rest and recover from childbirth. Today, rooming in (that is, having the baby stay in the mother’s room throughout the hospital stay) is becoming typical practice across the U.S. Research has shown that mothers and babies both reap many health and emotional benefits from close proximity, and that breastfeeding gets off to a better start when babies room in with their mothers. Rooming in ensures that the mother has many opportunities to hold her newborn baby in her arms and skin-to-skin, which is the key to the baby’s wellbeing, and to initiating breastfeeding. “If the baby isn’t skin-to-skin,” nurse and lactation consultant Nikki Lee explains in Today’s Parent magazine, “it’s like being in a long-distance relationship as far as the baby is concerned.” Newborn babies need the stimulation, regulation, and reassurance that the mother’s physical presence provides.
3. Practice babywearing.
Carrying, or wearing, the baby close to one’s body provides a host of medical benefits for babies and their parents. Whether parents choose a sling, a harness-style carrier, a wrap, or some other type of baby carrier, babywearing allows mothers (and fathers) to keep their babies close throughout the day. To enhance skin-to-skin contact while babywearing, if you are indoors or the weather is favorable, you can keep your baby in a diaper, touch your baby often, and consider wearing a bra or tank top. Specially made kangaroo care tops like the Nuroo and similar products may help. While babywearing is safe for most newborns, you’ll need to research which wrap is best for your baby and pay close attention to the manufacturer’s directions; some carriers require an insert piece to properly support a newborn’s neck, for example.
4. Comfort during feedings.
Skin-to-skin contact can help babies relax and settle into feeding time, whether they are breastfeeding or bottle-feeding. The key to successful feedings is getting the baby to the breast or bottle at the earliest signs of hunger, before the baby is crying (a late stage of hunger). But if your baby is showing signs of distress during feeding times, skin-to-skin can help her feel more comfortable, reinforcing her sense of security and aiding her transition to suckling.
5. Engage in tummy-to-tummy time.
We’ve all heard of “tummy time,” and we know babies are supposed to have some time each day on their tummies. This is in part so that they don’t develop flat spots from lying on their backs during sleeping hours and partly to strengthen the baby’s neck muscles. But “tummy time” doesn’t have to be on the floor or some other hard surface—it can be on you! Undress your baby to his diaper, take your shirt off, and place him on your chest. Keep one hand on him for stability, and drape a light blanket across his back for warmth. Engage him in whatever sort of cooing or play you like during this “tummy-to-tummy time.”
6. Bathe together.
Most babies find the warm, liquid environment of the tub to be soothing. Once your baby is past the sponge-bath phase you may consider taking him into the bathtub with you. Many parents find that their babies relax and enjoy skin-to-skin contact in the bath. As long as you are alert and not at risk of falling asleep in the warm water, bathing together can be a source of play and comfort.
Pediatrician Dr. William Sears provides some essential safety tips for co-bathing with your baby. Most importantly, be sure the water is no warmer than body temperature. Also, settle yourself in the tub, and then have your partner hand the baby to you to rest safely on your chest above the water. You’ll want your partner to remain within calling distance, so you can pass off the baby before you exit the tub too. Always keep both hands on your baby if you choose to co-bathe.
7. Read together.
Babies love to hear the soothing tones of their parents’ voices, and they respond with rapt attention when spoken to in typical “parentese.” The American Library Association (ALA) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) agree that reading to babies is important even in early infancy. The national “Reach Out and Read” program supports parents in reading to their babies from the start, to support brain development and language acquisition, and encourages pediatric practices to put age-appropriate books directly into the hands of babies and parents at well-child visits. Why not take advantage of the time spent together reading to fit in a little more soothing skin-to-skin contact? Books by Dakari Hru and Ken Wilson such as Tickle Tickle seem perfect for sharing while cuddled skin-to-skin.
8. Consider co-sleeping.
If you choose to co-sleep with your baby for all or part of the night, you may wish to do so skin-to-skin. As anthropologist and mother-baby sleep expert Jim McKenna, PhD, points out, humans have an evolutionary basis for co-sleeping. He explains: “During wake or sleep, maternal proximity and contact likely maximized the chances of the infant acquiring adequate safety, nutrition, and immunological protection” for our human ancestors, and infants still seek close contact for the same instinctive reasons. At any hour, skin-to-skin care soothes and stabilizes the baby. Skin-to-skin co-sleeping may work especially well for babies who are night-nursers. Be sure to follow safe co-sleeping recommendations if you choose to bring your baby into bed with you.
9. Practice infant massage.
Skin-to-skin contact isn’t relegated to only a mother’s chest. Babies can receive enormous benefits from other forms of skin-to-skin touch, including infant massage. There are many approaches to massaging a baby, but this practice is most soothing and most beneficial when it is implemented as a predictable part of the baby’s daily routine. (You can get tips on how to properly massage your baby here.)
10. Allow time for baby-skin-to-daddy-skin care.
Traditionally, hands-on care of the baby was thought to be the mother’s role and responsibility. Today we know that skin-to-skin care by fathers is also beneficial for the baby—and for Dad! Fathers who engage in skin-to-skin care with their babies typically report feelings of togetherness, development of a strong emotional bond, sense of responsibility during the baby’s infancy, and confidence in parental role. UNICEF notes that “the promotion of loving touch,” with tone of voice and positive feedback, helps parents to “learn, understand and respond to their baby’s feelings and needs.” So set aside a special hour each day that’s just for baby and Dad to relax together skin-to-skin.
On days when schedules result in skin-to-skin contact being in short supply, simply cuddle your baby as close as you can as often as you can. It’s good for him, and it’s good for you too.