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Skin-to-skin contact: Why it's good for babies and parents

Skin-to-skin contact right after birth makes it easy for babies to quickly transition to the nine innate stages and releases oxytocin in the mother

The later benefits of skin-to-skin contact include better maternal attachment behaviour and communication between mother and child.(Unsplash/Isaac Quesada)

By Dr. Vanshika Gupta Adukia

LAST PUBLISHED 24.01.2024  |  08:27 AM IST

There are five different love languages, according to psychologists, but only physical touch truly registers with newborns. Skin-to-skin right after birth is the practice of immediately placing the naked newborn against the mother’s body. The newborn baby is then stimulated to go through what may be referred to as nine innate stages by this practice: the birth cry, relaxation, awakening, activity, rest, crawling, familiarisation, nursing, and sleeping. 

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While the birth cry is the first intense cry that helps the newborn to transition to breathe air post birth, the next eight stages can be closely observed between mother and baby – if left uninterrupted in skin to skin.

The eight stages and corresponding behaviours
1. Birth cry: Intense wail shortly after delivery, transition to inhaling air. 
2. Relaxation stage: Infant rests. No movement of the head, mouth, arms, legs, or body.
3. Awakening stage: Infant begins to show signs of activity. There are little head movements: up, down, and side to side. Small movements of limbs and shoulders. 
4. Active stage: Infant moves limbs and head, more determined movements. Rooting activity, ‘pushing’ with limbs without shifting the body. 
5. Resting stage*: Infant rests, with some activity, such as mouth activity, and sucks on the hand.
7. Familiarisation: Infant has reached the areola/nipple with the mouth positioned to brush and lick areola/nipple. 
8. Suckling stage:Infant has taken a nipple in mouth and commences suckling.
9. Sleeping stage: Infant closes eyes and falls asleep.

These stages, when left without any external interference, would also include the breast crawl (stage 6) where the newborn naturally crawls to the mother’s breast, to familiarize with the nipple to initiate the first breastfeed. At times, the baby's transition from crawling to suckling can be so gradual that it catches parents and labour room personnel off guard when they discover the infant has moved to nursing. At other instances, the infant might make loud, obvious movements to draw attention from others nearby. 

The skin-to-skin contact also causes a further release in oxytocin—the ‘love hormone’—in the mother. This warms up the mother’s body, which comforts the baby and results in less crying, while also lowering the chances of hypoglycaemia or low sugar levels in the baby.

Further, this love hormone helps mothers and babies to recognize each other’s unique scent. This clarifies the relationship between the development of mother-infant attachment and the rise in the mother's oxytocin during the first hour following birth. Additionally, oxytocin helps the uterus contract, which reduces bleeding, and the risk of postpartum haemorrhage in the mother. 

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Research indicates that when babies who exhibit unpleasant behaviour when trying to latch are given the freedom to calmly progress through the phases of skin-to-skin contact at a later age, they may be able to successfully reach the nipple, connect to it on their own, and begin nursing. If it isn't feasible before, this could occur even weeks after delivery. This is a promising way to calmly solve breastfeeding problems and enhance mother-baby bonding.

After birth, skin-to-skin contact also had a positive impact on the infant's self-regulation at one year old. Another research which examined children at 10 years of age found that those who had received skin-to-skin contact as babies now displayed a range of benefits including better maternal attachment behaviour, reduced maternal anxiety, enhanced child cognitive development and good mother-child communication. 

While ample research backs the importance of skin-to-skin between mother and child, skin-to-skin can also be practiced between father and child. Fathers, too, experience the release of oxytocin in their bodies during skin to skin, with a simultaneous decrease in testosterone levels. This induces a much more calming and relaxed feeling in both father and child. It further helps the fathers understand and nurture the infants needs better, creating a long term stronger and emotional bond with the child after skin-to-skin is an established practice.

Dr. Vanshika Gupta Adukia is a pregnancy/childbirth and lactation specialist, a pelvic floor physiotherapist and founder of Therhappy, Mumbai.

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