OK, if you've heard about skin-to-skin contact but don't really know what it's about or what it's for, we're here to help. Skin-to-skin is literally what it says on the box: it's having nothing between you and your child, with your skins touching. It might not seem like a big deal, but science (and hundreds of years of tradition) tells us differently. So much so, that many medical facilities are recommending that babies are put skin-to-skin with, ideally, their mom (but their dad if mom can't) immediately after birth. So, now we know that it's important, let's look at why it is and what it helps with.
One of the most important benefits of skin-to-skin contact between a newborn baby and its mom is breastfeeding. When a baby is born, it should be put directly onto the mom's body. Once the umbilical cord has been cut, the baby will either inch up or can be placed, naked, on their mom's chest. From there, the baby will likely start to nuzzle about and will eventually breastfeed. Research has shown that allowing the mom and baby this time together, skin-to-skin improves the likelihood that they will have a successful breastfeeding relationship.
But skin-to-skin is useful for more than just breastfeeding. It also helps to strengthen the bond between the baby and their dad. Say, for example, mom is unable to be skin-to-skin with the baby immediately after birth. In that case, the baby should be laid directly onto their other parent's chest. There won't be the opportunity for breastfeeding but the skin contact helps the baby bond with their parent, whether it's mom or dad. This can carry on long after the birth, leading us to the next benefit of skin-to-skin contact.
Babies are born unable to perform some fairly necessary bodily functions, such as regulating their own body temperature. There's a really good, physiological reason that babies are generally happiest on their mom's chest: it helps them to regulate their body temperature and calms them. In the womb, they got used to hearing their mom's heartbeat, the rocking and swaying of her body, and the muffled sound of her voice. Once on the outside, being placed in a crib far away from those comforting sounds and movements, babies are usually pretty unhappy. When the baby is allowed to lie skin-to-skin with one of their parents, their bodies pick up cues from ours and helps them to regulate their body temperature. It also puts them closer to your heartbeat, your warmth and the soothing sound of your voice.
Look, successful breastfeeding, bonding and regulation are all very well but let's look at something that will directly help both parents. One of the reasons that skin-to-skin is great for bonding is because it helps our bodies release both Dopamine and Oxycontin, the feel-good hormone and the love hormone, respectively. This helps parents (both mom and dad experience this) feel good after the roller coaster of birth and feel love and protection for the tiny human. Moms will also experience a surge in the hormone Prolactin, which helps to stimulate the milk glands in her breast tissues, which in turn helps with breastfeeding. It's all connected, really.
And so you see why being skin-to-skin is so important, not just for baby but for mom and dad too. If possible, build skin-to-skin time into your birth plan and plan to spend a lot of time at home in the weeks after birth semi-naked. Feeling a bit overwhelmed by all the baby things? Most lactation consultants and midwives recommend spending time in a warm bath with your baby to help stimulate bonding and release all those lovely hormones. Just open your shirt and if it's cold, place a blanket over you both. This time spent together in the days and weeks after birth is some of the most important time spent with your newborn (and it's why it's so important for dads to get parental leave too, but that's a story for another day).