Anyone who has ever snuggled up with a newborn knows how delicious it can be. That sweet smell. That soft, soft skin. Just writing about it makes me physically yearn for another baby, and I was up at 1 and 3 a.m., cursing my 8-month-old for not staying asleep.
But it turns out, there are a lot of profound, science-backed reasons to hold your baby close, particularly in those early intense hours and days -- reasons that go well beyond because I want to and squeeeee. Here are just some of the amazing benefits of skin-to-skin contact.
It calms mamas right down.
There are few situations as emotionally trying as having a new baby in the NICU, but new research presented at the American Academy of Pediatrics' National Conference on Friday, which focused specifically on mothers, suggests that a little skin-to-skin contact can go a long way in reducing maternal stress.
Researchers with Children's National Health System in Washington, DC. measured women's stress levels before and after they held their babies skin-to-skin, within their shirts, for at least one hour. "We found that all of the mothers reported an objective decrease in their stress level after skin-to-skin contact with their babies," study researcher Dr. Natalia Isaza, a neonatologist, said in a statement. And the potential implications of that are far-reaching, Isaza added: Stress can interfere with baby-parent bonding, impede breastfeeding rates and take a toll on the overall wellbeing of women who have already been through so much.
It promotes early dad-baby bonding.
Skin-to-skin contact might be ideal, but it's not always possible -- especially in situations where a woman has had a C-section and contact may be limited for any number of reasons. But a small (yet oh-so-lovely) 2007 study found that dads who hold new children close to their chests have an immediate effect on their babies. They cried less, became calmer and reached a peaceful, drowsy state (that's ideal after all they've been through) far sooner than babies who were placed next to their dads in a cot. Plus, experts say it can help help boost paternal bonding at a more general level. "Bonding has as much to do with contact as involvement," Dr. David Hill, a pediatrician and author of Between Us Dads: A Father's Guide to Child Health, once told WebMD. "If you're in contact with your baby, the bond will occur."
It helps the most vulnerable babies regulate their bodies.
Several studies have found that holding babies skin-to-skin, a technique sometimes called "kangaroo care," can help them regulate and stabilize their body temperatures immediately after birth, a point in time when babies' temperatures quickly drop. (A baby's wet skin is said to lose up to 2 to 3 degrees very quickly via evaporation.) Immediate skin-to-skin contact helps keep babies warm, and some research even suggests that skin-to-skin may be at least on par with using an incubator for stabilizing preterm babies -- who tend to struggle the most with thermal regulation -- which may be particularly useful in areas of the world where access to those life-saving machines is limited. And Time recently reported on a startling long-term investigation, which found the benefits of kangaroo care may be long-lasting, finding that preemies who had a lot of physical contact with their caregivers had more predictable sleep patterns, steadier heart rates and even better stress management skills as school-age children, perhaps, because they calm down through physical contact when they are little, and thus learn what the regulating process is like.
It promotes breastfeeding.
There is a lot of research linking immediate skin-to-skin contact with higher rates of breastfeeding initiation, as well as a faster time to the first feeding after birth. Some studies show it may positively affect how long women breastfeed, and that skin-to-skin contact can be used to help resolve latch problems in women who are several weeks or even months postpartum. The close physical contact is thought to help diminish stress in babies who are otherwise reluctant to allow anyone to try and fix their latch, and may calm them down enough to allow their biological drive to latch on to the breast to emerge.
The super strong cuddling/breastfeeding connection is one reason why the World Health Organization and UNICEF have said that babies should be skin-to-skin for at least the first hour after birth as one of the priorities in its Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative, which is meant to help boost breastfeeding support.
It helps lessen babies' pain.
A parent's touch is potentially a powerful painkiller. A small investigation, published in Pediatrics in 2000, found that full-term babies who were held close by their mothers during a heel lance or stick -- a simple, minimally-invasive procedure used to gather blood samples -- cried and grimaced less than babies who were swaddled in a crib during the procedure, and their heart rates were also more relaxed. "Skin to skin is a remarkably potent intervention against [that] pain," the authors wrote. Similar studies in preterm infants have yielded comparable results showing that love, truly, can be a powerful form of medicine.