Baby laying on parent for skin-to-skin contact
Louise Broadbridge
Louise Broadbridge

Why skin-to-skin is so important

If you’re expecting a baby, you may well have heard people talking about skin-to-skin contact. This is hugely beneficial to both you and your newborn and can help you forge strong bonds with each other.

What is skin-to-skin contact?

Skin-to-skin contact is when a newborn baby is placed straight onto their mother’s bare chest when they are born. Fathers can also have skin-to-skin cuddles with their babies, and it is something that will continue to have enormous benefits throughout the early days and weeks.

Babies find skin-to-skin contact very reassuring and comforting – it helps them adjust to life outside of the womb and the new, noisy, bright world they find themselves in. It can also help when it comes to establishing breastfeeding.

When should I first try skin-to-skin with my baby?

The best time for skin-to-skin is when your baby is first born, and you should continue for the first hour of their life or until they have finished their first breastfeed. Whoever has delivered your baby can help you by drying your newborn and putting them safely on your chest.

They will then cover you both with a blanket so you stay warm, as small babies find it difficult to regulate their own body temperature and can lose heat quickly. If you are planning to breastfeed, this is an ideal time to feed for the first time as your baby will be in a good position and the close proximity of your little one will trigger the release of the hormones oxytocin and prolactin, which will kickstart your body’s production of breastmilk.

Can I still do skin to skin if my baby is born by c-section?

It is now common practise to encourage new parents to practise skin-to-skin contact regardless of how their baby is delivered. Having a c-section will not prevent you from having skin-to-skin cuddles so long as there are no medical reasons why it wouldn’t be a good idea.

If you or your baby needs extra care or assistance, they may tell you that skin-to-skin contact is not possible right away. The health and safety of you and your child will always be the top priority.

In most cases, however, the midwife in the operating theatre will bring your baby to you and lay them on your bare chest until it is time for you to be moved onto a ward. Staff will also help you resume your skin-to-skin contact once you have been transferred and are settled.

If you are having a caesarean and skin-to-skin contact is important to you, make sure those caring for you know so they can help. Including it in your birth plan will make it easier for them to know your wishes, and you will be asked to wear your hospital gown back to front so your baby can be laid on your chest.

Your baby will also be laid in a higher position than after a vaginal birth to avoid your wound.

How does skin-to-skin benefit me and my baby?

Skin-to-skin contact is very calming and is a vital part of the initial bonding experience. It will give you both time to get used to each other and recover from the birth, which will have been hard work for both of you!

Your baby’s skin touching yours triggers the release of oxytocin, often nicknamed the love hormone. This will flood you with positive feelings and help you fall in love with your new arrival.

Oxytocin isn’t a feel-good hormone though; it plays an important part in helping your uterus shrink back down to its normal size. Skin-to-skin contact also reduces the presence of the stress hormone cortisol.

In their first few hours and days, touch is one of the only things your baby will understand. Skin-to-skin contact will also help your baby learn your unique scent, which will help them recognise you and provide them with comfort in the coming weeks and months.

When they are lying on your chest, your baby will also be able to hear the familiar sound of your heartbeat, which they will recognise from their time in your womb.

Researchers believe skin-to-skin contact after birth reduces crying as it settles newborns and helps them be in a quiet, alert state. It also raises your baby’s glucose levels, reducing the risk of hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar.

As babies find it difficult to regulate their own temperature, skin-to-skin helps keep your little one warm during those first few hours after birth. It also regulates your baby’s blood pressure and breathing and exposes them to your friendly bacteria, which is important in the development of their immune system.

Skin to skin is particularly important to breastfeeding mums as it helps trigger the production of milk. Regular skin-to-skin cuddles will help you build up your milk supply, and as your baby will be able to smell your breastmilk, it will encourage them to want to feed.

What does the first skin-to-skin cuddle involve?

In the first few moments after birth, your baby will usually let out a distinctive cry. However, once they are placed on your chest, they will usually stop crying and appear very calm, still, and quiet.

Your newborn will gradually open their eyes and become more awake – they may even show some interest in your voice, which they will recognise from hearing you talk while they were in the womb.

If you leave your baby to follow their natural instincts, they may appear to move towards your breast and start nuzzling, smelling or even licking your nipple. In some cases, your newborn may even manage to attach themselves and start feeding without any help.

Don’t worry if this doesn’t happen, though, as your midwife can help you initiate your first breastfeed and make sure your baby is latched on correctly and in a good position. Once your baby has fed, it is normal for them to fall asleep and remain very sleepy for the next few hours as they recover from the tiring work of being born.

What if skin-to-skin isn’t possible straight away?

Sometimes, it won’t be safe or practical for you to have skin-to-skin contact with your baby straight after birth. While this may be disappointing, your baby will still get lots of benefits from skin-to-skin contact when it is possible, even if this is a few hours, days, or even weeks after birth.

Premature babies can often not be held straight away, but skin-to-skin contact, sometimes called kangaroo care, is encouraged on neonatal wards, and your little one will get a lot out of these cuddles, even if you have been waiting a while to have them.

There’s also no point where you have to stop skin-to-skin cuddling. Continue them for as long as you and your baby find them enjoyable. You may find it is a useful tool when it comes to calming them down when they are grumpy or upset.

Can my partner do skin-to-skin cuddles too?

Anyone who loves your baby and is an important person in their life can give them skin-to-skin cuddles, especially your partner. They will probably find they enjoy the feeling of closeness with your baby, and it will help them both bond and get used to each other.

When you are preparing for the birth, encourage your partner to wear a top that opens at the front, so skin-to-skin cuddles will be easy and won’t require a full undress. Your baby will learn to smell your partner’s scent just as they will learn yours, so it is a good idea for both of you to stay away from any strong perfumes or aftershaves.

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