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Skin to Skin

The First Hour Of Life

Skin to skin contact provides the best adjustment for a newborn in the first hour of life.

Did you ever wonder how babies managed to survive in the days before infant warmers and other medical equipment that greet our newborns? Research shows that the best “medical equipment” for helping the baby adjust to life outside the womb was there all along: the mother’s skin.

The mother’s body is not only effective in warming her just-born baby, but unlike the hospital warmer, skin to skin contact between mother and infant teaches the infant’s body how to maintain its own temperature. If the temperature is low, a blanket placed over the infant can help prevent body heat from escaping to the room air.

Or in some facilities warming lights over the bed can be turned on while the infant is on the mother’s abdomen, eliminating the need for a blanket on top.

Benefits of Skin to Skin Contact for the Newborn

However, more is happening with this first skin contact than just infant warming. The tactile sensation is incredibly comforting to the infant. It is truly amazing to compare the undeniable differences in behavior of an infant who is weighed, finger printed, and examined to one that is left to rest on Mommy’s tummy. Infants in the first category may close their eyes tight and expend a lot of energy howling their displeasure. Those who are skin to skin with their mothers rest and soak in this wonderful sensation. They open their eyes and search out their mother’s face in the first moments after birth. They find their fist with its familiar smell and suck greedily on it, preparing their mouth for their first feeding which will take place shortly. As they quietly suck and stare, they can hear the comforting sounds of their parent’s voices, which are naturally quieter and recognized by the baby.

Baby’s primary sensation is touch. And these babies who are experiencing the wonderful tactile sensation of skin to skin contact with their mothers are gently opening up to the others senses they possess. Unlike the howling babies who protest the onslaught of unwelcome touch and manipulation, these skin-to-skin infants begin to see, smell, and hear as they awaken to the outside world. And these babies resting on their mother’s skin are getting ready to use that critically important sense: taste.

Every expectant parent should watch the videos of newborns in the first half hour as they creep towards and find the mother’s nipple. This self attachment only happens with infants who are left skin to skin on their mother’s abdomen. The miracle of new life continues to awe the parents as the little one navigates slowly to the mother’s breast.

This scenario does not happen when the infant is handled, and pricked with needles, and wrapped in blankets and then handed back to the mother. It also is difficult to help a mother breastfeed for the first time in these situations. The baby is usually swaddled in several layers of blankets. The mother has difficulty getting the baby in a position to suckle with all the layers of blankets as a barrier between her and her baby. It is so much simpler, and effective, if Mommy and Baby are skin-to-skin, tummy to tummy.

Self Attachment Behaviors

In the first hour of life, babies who are unmedicated and remain skin to skin with their mothers have shown a unique set of behaviors. This has been captured on film and validated by research. These behaviors disappear when interventions, medications, or separation of mother and baby occur.

The sequence of newborn behaviors with complete skin contact with their mother includes:
  • Newborn and mother make eye to eye contact
  • Infant sucks his or her own fist
  • The newborns push themselves towards the mother's breast using a kicking movement with their feet. The scent on their fist guides them to the scent on the mother's breast.
  • The baby will stroke the mother's skin with his or her hands.
  • A bobbing motion of the head is made by the baby. It assists with placement at the breast.
  • As the baby nears one breast, he or she latches on to the nipple.
  • The baby begins a coordinated pattern of sucking, swallowing, stroking.
At the same time, the mother is stroking the baby's skin, looking into the baby's eyes, and talking softly to her newborn.

Obstacles to Mother Infant Bonding

However ideal this situation may be, a fact of life is that the hospital has an entire protocol of procedures that must be done to the infant. Some of these, such as antibiotics to the eyes, are state mandated. Others, such as placing ID bands and taking footprints, are necessary for security. Parents are naturally quite curious about the weight and length of their baby and eager to have those measurements taken. Skin to skin may be best, but other factors often weigh in more heavily.

Even in facilities that practice skin to skin contact, objections have been raised by parents. Some mothers prefer not to hold their infant until he or she has been bathed: a practice that exposes the infant to even more sensory overload before experiencing comfort from mother.

Eager family members are often anxious to get into the room and meet the baby for the first time. Grandparents who were not present for the birth are often particularly desirous of coming in to the room. But the mother often does not wish to be seen undressed before they enter the room.

Promoting Skin to Skin Bonding

Prior to the birth, let family members know that mother and baby will be spending that essential first hour skin to skin. It promotes breastfeeding and assists the baby with the transition in the first hour of life.

Parents in hospitals sometimes request that the procedures be delayed for an hour or two. Others have had such procedures done while the infant is left on the mother’s abdomen. Some families, who did not have either option, have taken time in the first few days after birth to recreate that beautiful bonding scenario. It is not too late, then, to lie skin to skin, stroking and nurturing your baby.

Learn More

The classic video Delivery Self-Attachment by Righard and Adelade demonstrates infants self-attaching to the breast. It took over 30 years to get this simple concept accepted in American hospitals.

Delayed Attachment

What if self-attachment does not occur after birth? In the western world it is an exception rather than the rule.

The behaviors listed above are present for several weeks. See the different methods of delayed attachment to promote skin to skin bonding in the first few weeks of life.

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By Karen Newell Copyright 2003 - 2012 Better Childbirth Outcomes - All Rights Reserved
Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, USA