Right after your baby is born, they begin to experience the world and adapt to life outside the womb. Their most supportive and beneficial environment is skin to skin on mom’s body.
Skin to skin contact means holding your unclothed baby or while they have only a diaper on and you are bare from your waist up. It is contact between your skin and your baby’s skin and is recommended for at least the first hour after birth. Although it was first recommended for premature babies, there is agreement that the benefits of skin to skin are important for full term babies and should be encouraged and supported for all babies and parents.
Your baby relies on you to help them regulate. They learn self-regulation through co-regulation with you. As your baby’s brain develops and forms neural connections, your baby’s body functions and reactions to their environment happen in response to your connections with them and your responses. After birth, being skin to skin helps your baby adjust and have greater stability with breathing, temperature, glucose and less crying.(1) When skin to skin with their parents, babies cry less. Crying increases blood pressure, heartbeat and breathing. Irregular breathing and heartbeat episodes can be reduced by 75% when the baby is put skin to skin with their mother.(3)
Skin to skin contact is the best way to help keep your baby’s body temperature stable. When your baby is at your breast while skin to skin, your breast’s temperature will rise or cool down depending on the needs of your baby. In fact, in a study with twins being in skin to skin contact with their mother, each breast adapted and changed in response to the individual baby’s needs.(2) Babies who don’t have to spend extra energy to heat their body because they are skin to skin, also tend to gain weight more quickly.
We often see babies skin to skin in that first hour after birth and then it may not be suggested to us again and it falls off our radar. However, the benefits of skin to skin do not disappear and in fact continuing skin to skin contact with your baby often and especially while breastfeeding, helps improve the breastfeeding relationship.
Being skin to skin with your baby during feeding gives them the freedom of moving their body more easily, unrestricted by clothing. Mittens on their hands can get in the way. Babies use their hands to feel their way and massage the breast before and during nursing. Without clothing, they are able to move along your body more easily to reach your chest. Skin to skin contact releases oxytocin known as the love hormone increasing the bonding experience between you and your baby. As oxytocin increases, cortisol, the stress hormone, decreases. Oxytocin is the hormone responsible for milk release. Even past the newborn stage, when skin to skin with your baby, you and your baby are better able to relax and encourage milk let down.
Movement is crucial for babies. When they are skin to skin, it stimulates the specific part of their brain to move toward the chest, find your breast and using their reflexes, they will continue to wiggle and crawl until they reach the nipple, latch on and begin to feed. During the latching process they will gaze up towards your eyes and begin the social interactions that teach them they are safe and supported emotionally. Babies who are skin to skin often gain weight more easily and have more success with breastfeeding long term.
How skin to skin helps with the latching process
- Baby cries less and is able to calm down faster
- Raises oxytocin level responsible for the milk ejection reflex
- Increases bonding between parent and baby. Dads can do skin to skin as well!
- Allows the baby to use their sense of touch and smell more easily during latching
- Helps older babies who have had latching difficulties have latching success(4)
- Touch input to the brain drives movement and makes neural connections
- Repetition of skin to skin further strengthens muscles working together and their patterns for latching
What can interfere with skin to skin
- Mittens on your baby’s hands do not let them feel their way as easily towards the nipple. As they reach for your nipple, the fluid from your Montgomery glands are on their hands and it smells like amniotic fluid encouraging them to continue to get closer to the breast.
- A newborn hat inhibits mom from smelling the baby’s head. The scent of your baby releases oxytocin. Your baby’s temperature is better regulated by skin to skin than a hat
- Clothing creates a barrier between the parent’s skin and the baby's skin. Touch over clothes feels muted than on bare skin.
- bras and shirts can get in the way of latching. To do skin to skin, wear nothing above your waist and baby to have on just a diaper. Put a blanket over top of you both if it is chilly.
- Separation of mom and baby, including swaddling and separate sleep areas. Babies who are skin to skin and in close proximity to their mother react more often to each other's movements and cues for feeding.(6) Over 24 hours, this often results in feeding more often including the middle of the night which is protective of milk supply.
Other ways to add touch
- Take a bath with your baby
- Infant massage
- Partner doing skin to skin which is a nice way for them to bond with the baby. Partners who do skin to skin with their baby learn to read their baby’s cues easier and faster.(5)