Skin-to-skin contact straight after birth has numerous benefits for your baby – and you – as doula and birth coach Leonie Mynhardt explains.
Your baby has spent nine months in the safe, warm confines of the womb, comforted by rhythmic sound of his mommy’s heartbeat in his ears and with nutrition and oxygen constantly available through the umbilical cord. At birth, he is suddenly removed from that warmth and safety into a cold, brightly lit, noisy world. Suddenly he must breathe on his own, and his little body needs to learn how to defend himself against all kinds of external elements like germs and bacteria. It’s no wonder then, that the only place he really wants to be is as close as possible to his mom, where he can hear her heartbeat and bask in the warmth of her body, feeling nurtured and loved.
A golden start
The first hours after birth (also called the golden hours) are a developmentally distinct time for a baby, and there are well documented physical and psychological advantages when a baby is held skin-to-skin to his mother’s body during this time. When a baby is in skin-to-skin contact immediately after birth, the nine instinctive newborn stages can happen in a specific order that is innate and instinctive for the baby.
Stage 1 – Birth cry
This distinctive cry happens immediately after a baby is born as the baby’s lungs expand to take in his first breath of air. It is often referred to as the most wonderful sound a new parent will hear. A baby can be placed on the mother’s bare chest or tummy immediately after he is born.
Stage 2 – Relaxation
During the second stage the baby displays no mouth movements and his hands are relaxed. The baby is lying on the mother’s chest, covered only with a towel or blanket. No other clothing is necessary; your body temperature is enough to regulate to newborn’s body temperature. As long as everything is medically sound, there should be no reason that the baby can’t be dried off and that his vital signs can’t be monitored while he is in this skin-to-skin cuddle.
Stage 3 – Awakening
The baby starts to show signs of small movements in his shoulders, he opens his eyes and moves his head and mouth. He is becoming aware of his new surroundings.
Stage 4 – Activity
During this stage, the baby begins to make increased mouthing and sucking movements as his rooting reflex becomes more obvious.
Stage 5 – Rest
There may be periods of rest in between periods of activity throughout the nine stages.
Stage 6 – Crawling
The baby approaches the breast during this stage using crawling movements. Even though he can only see clearly at a distance of about 25cm, the darker colour of your areola act as a e uses the darker. This stage can last more than 30 minutes.
Stage 7 – Familiarisation
The baby becomes acquainted with his mother by licking and suckling the breast and nipple and touching and massaging the breast.
Stage 8 – Suckling
During this stage, the baby takes the nipple, latches on and suckles. This is an early learning experience in breastfeeding. If pain medication or anaesthesia were used during labour, this stage may take a little longer.
Stage 9 – Sleep
After all this hard work, baby (and sometimes mom) falls into a restful sleep.
The importance of touch
This all important contact between a mother and her baby greatly increases the chances of successful breastfeeding. This not the only benefit of skin-to-skin, though. Your baby is exposed to the microbiome that is present on your skin with this first touch. This kick starts the development of a healthy immune system. It also promotes bonding and enhances the feeling of wellness for both mom and baby after birth. Research has also proved that the overall birth outcome for baby is greatly enhanced with skin-to-skin time with mom directly after birth – better APGAR scores and less medical interventions required. Skin-to-skin also promotes better sleeping patterns in newborn babies. Another important aspect is that if the baby is interrupted for routine checks during this period, he will start the nine stages again from stage two so it is important not to rush or interrupt it.
Skin-to-skin after a c-section
Because of the nature of a Caesarean section birth and the medical interventions required during and after the procedure, successful skin-to-skin directly after birth is challenging. There are, however, a few ways to ensure that both mom and baby get the optimal benefits of the golden hours following the birth.
Wear a towel wrapped around your body (without clothes on) for an hour a day for a few days before the scheduled c-section. Place this towel in a clean plastic bag and take it with to hospital. Ask that your baby be covered with, or placed on, this towel when he is lifted out of the uterus by the doctor, and before he is handed to you for the first time. This will give the baby the much-needed exposure to your skin microbiome. Skin-to-skin contact can still be done after a c-section – the baby can be placed vertically over your chest instead of horizontally between your breasts.
Skin-to skin beyond birth
Even though those first hours after birth after crucial for skin-to-skin contact between a mother and baby, ongoing skin-to-skin contact for at least an hour a day also has numerous benefits for both mommy and baby. Not only does it enhance the bond between mother and child, it also minimises the risk of you developing postnatal depression. It may also help you feel more connected to your baby, and more alert to his needs as a result. So, take the time to cuddle up with your baby as much as you can. This time in their lives passes so quickly and once it is gone, it can never be brought back.
Let dad do it too
Baby’s dad isn’t excluded from enjoying this crucial contact. Apart from breastfeeding, the same benefits that moms and babies enjoy through skin-to-skin also exist for fathers. In cases where a baby is born prematurely, or there a lot of medical interventions were necessary during the birth, mom might not be able to hold her baby immediately. This is a prime time for dad to step in, take off his shirt, and enjoy that special time with his baby. He can provide the warmth and security that skin-to-skin contact brings, and expose the baby to his microbiome. You can also encourage your baby’s father to practice skin-to-skin with baby while you’re both recovering in hospital, and once you get home. A baby’s bond with his father is, after all, an important factor too.