There are now a multitude of studies that show that mothers and babies should be together, skin to skin (baby naked, not wrapped in a blanket) immediately after birth, as well as later. The baby is happier, the baby’s temperature is more stable and more normal, the baby’s heart and breathing rates are more stable and more normal, and the baby’s blood sugar is more elevated. Not only that, skin to skin contact immediately after birth allows the baby to be colonized by the same bacteria as the mother. This, plus breastfeeding, are thought to be important in the prevention of allergic diseases. When a baby is put into an incubator, his skin and gut are often colonized by bacteria different from his mother’s.
We now know that this is true not only for the baby born at term and in
good health, but also even for the premature baby. Skin to skin contact and Kangaroo Mother Care can contribute much to the care of the premature baby. Even babies on oxygen can be cared for skin
to skin, and this helps reduce their need for extra oxygen, and keeps them more stable in other ways as well (See www.kangaroomothercare.com) (See the information sheet Breastfeeding the Premature Baby).
To appreciate the importance of keeping mother and baby skin to skin for as long as possible in these first few weeks of life (not just at feedings) it might help to understand that a human baby, like any mammal, has a natural habitat: in close contact with the mother (or father). When a baby or any mammal is taken out of this natural habitat, it shows all the physiologic signs of being under significant stress. A baby not in close contact with his mother (or father) by distance (under a heat lamp or in an incubator) or swaddled in a blanket, may become too sleepy or lethargic or becomes disassociated altogether or cry and protest in despair. When a baby is swaddled it cannot interact with his mother, the way nature intended. With skin to skin contact, the mother and the baby exchange sensory information that stimulates and elicits “baby” behaviour: rooting and searching the breast, staying calm, breathing more naturally, staying warm, maintaining his body temperature and maintaining his blood sugar.
From the point of view of breastfeeding, babies who are kept skin to skin with the mother immediately after birth for at least an hour, are more likely to latch on without any help and they are more likely to latch on well, especially if the mother did not receive medication during the labour or birth. As mentioned in the information sheet Breastfeeding—Starting out Right, a baby who latches on well gets milk more easily than a baby who latches on less well.
To recap, skin to skin contact immediately after birth, which lasts for at least an hour (and should continue for as many hours as possible throughout the day and night for the first number of weeks) has the following positive effects. The baby:
- Is more likely to latch on
- Is more likely to latch on well
- Maintains his body temperature normal better even than in an incubator
- Maintains his heart rate, respiratory rate and blood pressure normal
- Has higher blood sugar
- Is less likely to cry
- Is more likely to breastfeed exclusively and breastfeed longer
- Will indicate to his mother when he is ready to feed
There is no reason that the vast majority of babies cannot be skin to skin with the mother immediately after birth for at least an hour. Hospital routines, such as weighing the baby, should not take precedence.
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The baby should be dried off and put on the mother. Nobody should be pushing the baby to do anything; nobody should be trying to help the baby latch on during this time. The baby may be placed vertically on the mother’s abdomen and chest and be left to find his way to the breast, while mother supports him if necessary. The mother, of course, may make some attempts to help the baby, and this should not be discouraged. This is baby’s first journey in the outside world and the mother and baby should just be left in peace to enjoy each other’s company. (The mother and baby should not be left alone, however, especially if the mother has received medication, and it is important that not only the mother’s partner, but also a nurse, midwife, doula or physician stay with them—occasionally, some babies do need medical help and someone qualified should be there “just in case”). The eye drops and the injection of vitamin K can wait a couple of hours. By the way, immediate skin to skin contact can also be done after cæsarean section, even while the mother is getting stitched up, unless there are medical reasons which prevent it.