Skin-to-skin (SSC), placing your naked newborn baby on your bare chest immediately after birth, has been found to be so beneficial to helping a baby adapt to life outside the womb that the World Health Organisation has recommended it becomes routine practice in hospitals.
However, most babies are cleaned, dressed and swaddled before being handed back to mom.
Backed by a series of studies, Dr Nils Bergman, honorary research associate in Human Biology and senior lecturer in Paediatrics at the University of Cape Town, argues that skin-to-skin contact should be every baby’s birth right. Dr Bergman first introduced SSC to South Africa in 1995.
His wife, Jill Bergman, a doula and author of the book Hold Your Prem, based on her husband’s studies, has taken on the task of putting his scientific research into practical applications for parents.
Here, she explains the benefits of skin-to-skin contact:
1. SSC helps regulate breathing
A baby who is left undisturbed in skin-to-skin contact with his mother is also able to better regulate his breathing. This may, in turn, help to stabilise his heartrate.
2. SSC boosts immunity naturally
Your baby needs your beneficial microbes. His first dose, as he emerges from the ‘sterile’ environment of the womb, comes from your vaginal canal, but a further beneficial dose can also come through skin-to-skin contact with your newborn. Seeding your baby with these bacteria, in particular lactobacilli, boosts his immune system and also helps put the founding bacteria in his gut that he needs to digest his first meal of colostrum, which is packed with powerful antibodies.
3. SSC decreases infant crying
Prolonged infant crying at birth is not something that the midwives at Genesis Clinic, a midwifery obstetric unit in Johannesburg, like to hear, shares Jeanell du Plessis, a senior midwife at the clinic. Drawing on research by Dr Bergman and his colleagues, Jeanell explains that infants want to be with their mothers – it’s the environment most similar to the womb where they can smell, taste and hear what they are familiar with. Prolonged separation triggers crying and what’s dubbed the ‘protest-despair response’, a stress response that destabilises body temperature and cardio-respiration.
The stress hormone cortisol can take around one hour to wash out of your baby’s system, explains Jill. So, two minutes of separation from you to put on a nappy, one minute of weighing on a scale, one minute of being rubbed down and cleaned and dressed are all minutes of stress that can provoke crying and undermine the stabilisation of your baby’s physiology.
This all means that routine tasks traditionally undertaken to ensure a baby’s wellbeing, such as observing and measuring a baby (for the Apgar), are better done with the baby on the mother’s chest, or at the bedside with minimal separation. Some, like weighing the baby, should be delayed until after the first breastfeed. In fact, even if your baby needs oxygen, it is best initiated on the mother’s chest, she asserts.
4. SSC reduces risk of low blood sugar
Having spent nine months in a temperature-controlled environment, newborns aren’t able to regulate their body temperature well. If babies lose too much heat, they have to use their meagre energy supplies to keep their temperature stable. Mothers are able to thermally sync with their babies – a mother can raise her body temperature by up to 2°C to warm her baby, or drop her body temperature by 1°C to cool him.
With you helping to regulate your baby’s temperature, skin-to-skin contact can help him produce energy from his body stores until he is breastfeeding well. This helps reduce the risk of hypoglycaemia (low blood sugar levels).
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