Skin to Skin & Breastfeeding: Why It Matters
The Sacred Hour looks like this: Immediately following delivery and for the first hour thereafter, the baby, unswaddled, is placed directly on the mother’s bare chest and left skin to skin without interruption as long as no medical intervention is necessary for mom or baby (routine things like medication and weight checks can be delayed until after the first hour). This is also sometimes referred to as “kangaroo care”.
And yes, C-section mamas can have this experience with their newborn (expecting moms should inquire about post-delivery protocols to see if this is a priority for their hospital).
Most moms will experience skin to skin contact with their newborn but don’t know exactly why it’s important or what the extent of the benefits are. Well, let’s dive in because it’s fascinating, and doesn't just have positive effects in the short term, but the long term as well. Who knew such a simple act could be so beneficial and powerful?
Since mom and baby have spent the last 40ish weeks physically connected to one another, the transition to life outside the womb should be handled with great care and intention. Remaining in close physical contact with one another is the best method we have for emulating the experience in the womb & helping babies peacefully and gradually adjust to life outside the womb.
Think about it….newborns leave behind their cozy, close quarters with around the clock nutrition and temperature control and abruptly encounter bright lights, fluctuating temperatures, new smells, air in place of water...it’s a lot to take in. No wonder the first thing we listen for is a cry!
But close contact with mom provides familiarity, warmth, and comfort, easing this stark change in their reality.
The initial (and most commonly known) benefits of skin to skin time are:
- Calms and soothes baby; less crying
- Lowers maternal stress/promotes relaxation
- Rest for both
- Immediate bonding/emotional attachment
- Builds maternal confidence in caring for her baby
When we look a little further we note these benefits for the baby specifically:
- Regulation of respiratory system (normal breathing and oxygenation)
- Stable blood pressure and heart rate
- Normal blood sugar levels
- Body temperature regulation (mom’s body temp will automatically adjust to warm or cool the baby as needed - more effective than an incubator!)
- Boosts immune system
- Boosts brain development
Now let’s look into the remarkable ways skin to skin impacts breastfeeding in particular:
The first benefit we see is an early initiation of breastfeeding. The close proximity to one another kickstarts a helpful cycle in which the mother’s milk production and milk volume is stimulated (thanks, oxytocin hormone!), and because of that, the scent and physical contact provides an early cue to the baby to attempt latching. It's pretty incredible that the first thing we can do to cultivate a healthy breastfeeding relationship is to snuggle our baby! Simple, but incredibly effective.
If allowed the time and opportunity, newborn babies can even initiate the first feeding all on their own - a phenomenon called the “breast crawl” or “self-latching”. It’s a process that occurs over the span of about an hour, completely unassisted. Such an astonishing instinct! Allowing this to occur can take some of the pressure off the mom in regards to feeding, and establishes a positive first experience.
Not only does skin to skin get breastfeeding started off on the right foot, but the overall duration of breastfeeding is even improved when this mother-baby interaction is prioritized immediately following birth. One study showed double the duration of nursing with as little as 15 minutes of skin to skin.
Considering these substantial benefits and the profound payoff, we would say the “Sacred Hour” is aptly named, wouldn’t you? And bravo to the medical world for respecting and protecting this crucial time of connection for moms and babies.
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