Skin-to-skin is as simple as it sounds: Cuddling your unclothed baby against your bare chest. It’s a bang for your buck, developmentally speaking, because it’s so easy yet it benefits your baby (and you) in so many ways! We tend to think of moms doing skin-to-skin, but many of its benefits apply when dads and adoptive parents do it, too.
Let’s take a look at the areas this special kind of cuddling supports:
A warm, trusting bond with at least one caregiver is a foundation of optimal development. Skin-to-skin is one way to nurture this important relationship, because it promotes feelings of closeness and safety for your baby, especially right after birth. Research shows that mothers who hold their newborns skin-to-skin cuddle their babies more and are more responsive, an observation noted even a year later during one-year pediatrician checkups.
Several studies show that babies who are held skin-to-skin breastfeed better. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends skin-to-skin right after birth for all breastfeeding babies. La Leche League International says that holding your baby skin-to-skin in the days after his birth helps breastfeeding continue smoothly and even increases prolactin—a hormone that helps your body make milk. This study looked at two groups of 1-16 week-old babies with severe problems latching onto the breast. In one group, the babies were held skin-to-skin during nursing and in the other they were clothed. It was easier for the babies in the skin-to-skin group to learn how to latch on properly.
During skin-to-skin with mom right after birth, the temperature of her breasts responds to baby’s temperature, either warming him up or cooling him down. Remarkably, research shows that when a mom of twins holds them skin-to-skin with one on each breast, each breast’s temperature changes independently based on what each baby needs!
Skin-to-skin helps regulate breathing, heart rate, and blood sugar.
During skin-to-skin, protective antibodies are passed from adult to baby. This helps stimulate baby’s immune system and protect him from infection.
Babies who get skin-to-skin cry less than those who don’t. One reason is because skin-to-skin decreases cortisol (a stress hormone). Research shows that when skin-to-skin lasts longer than 60 minutes cortisol drops significantly, so if you’re able to fit in long skin-to-skin snuggles, go for it! Skin-to-skin also increases the adult’s level of oxytocin—a hormone that generates feel-good emotions and supports bonding.
Skin-to-skin stimualtes your baby’s sensory system, which you can read about in-depth here.
Additional Benefits for Premature or Low Birth-Weight Babies
Babies born with a low birth weight may be at higher risk for infections and hypothermia, both of which are reduced by skin-to-skin. What’s more, a 20 year follow-up study of the impact of skin-to-skin on premature and low birth-weight babies found that those who received skin-to-skin care were better behaved and had larger brains compared to those who received traditional incubator care.
How to Do Skin-to-Skin
Simply take off your shirt, strip baby down to his diaper, hold him against your chest, and cover him with a blanket.
If your baby was born healthy and full-term, mom, dad or an adoptive parent can start skin-to-skin as soon as possible after birth and continue skin-to-skin sessions for as long as you wish. Feedings are a great time for this.
If your baby was born prematurely or is in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) for any other reason, talk to your doctor about skin-to-skin. Many NICUs build skin-to-skin into babies’ care due to its documented benefits.