As you have been preparing for the arrival of your baby, you may have read or heard about the importance of kangaroo care, or otherwise known as, skin-to-skin contact immediately following birth. Skin-to-skin, or kangaroo care, is a method of caring for infants in which the baby is held skin-to-skin with the mother (and in some cases the father) for several hours per day. The benefits of skin-to-skin are often covered in birthing preparation classes and the practice is considered to be one of the most important steps you can take during the first hours of your baby’s life. In addition to the more obvious benefits such as bonding with your newborn and promoting breastfeeding, you may be wondering why skin-to-skin contact is so important. Listed below are seven compelling reasons explaining why kangaroo care can be tremendously valuable to both mom and baby’s health and well-being.
1) Helps baby adapt to life outside the womb
Kangaroo care initially was developed as a practice for mothers of preterm infants in an effort to help the babies regulate their bodily functions. Spending time skin-to-skin with mom during the first hours of life has been found to aid in heart rate stabilization, increase oxygen levels and normalize body temperature in preemies and full-term infants alike. These benefits in combination with improved sleep (see below) have also been found to promote long-term mental development and brain functioning.
2) Encourages breastfeeding and healthy weight gain
When mom and baby are skin-to-skin following birth, baby’s inherent instinct to find the breast is made easier. Babies are able to smell mom’s milk and in some cases have even been known to move themselves towards the nipple on their own. Furthermore, according to the Neonatal Network, moms who practice kangaroo care are more likely to exclusively breastfeed their babies and typically continue breastfeeding an average of three months longer than those who do not. In addition to encouraging a healthy breastfeeding relationship, because babies are better able to regulate their body temperatures and stay warm, energy is then reserved for growth and healthy weight gain. To learn more about the importance of breastfeeding, check out this extremely popular article on 15 cool facts about breastfeeding.
3) Promotes a strong attachment to mom and dad
According to Susan M. Ludington, R.N., Ph.D., executive director of The United States Institute for Kangaroo Care, “Infancy sets up your interactions with your baby for the rest of her life.” One of the best ways to begin the process of fostering a secure attachment is to practice skin-to-skin care during the first two hours of life and beyond. Babies not only can feel the warmth of their mother’s skin this way but can also hear the familiar sounds of her voice and heartbeat. Children whose parents practiced kangaroo care when they were infants have been shown to be more securely attached to their parents, have a more positive sense of self and display superior social competence compared to those whose parents did not.
4) Improved mental well-being for mom
Skin-to-skin care does not only have benefits for baby but for mom too. When a mother holds and comforts her baby she is satisfying her own instinctual need to soothe her little one. Kangaroo care has been shown to decrease the likelihood of postpartum depression by increasing Mom’s Oxytocin production and in turn reducing anxiety and depression. According to The American Journal of Maternal and Child Nursing, skin-to-skin contact also reactivates activity in mom’s adrenal axis which is typically negatively affected by childbirth. The adrenal axis is part of the Neuroendocrine system that regulates body processes such as stress, mood and emotions. Consequently, baby is not the only one feeling comforted in this practice!
5) Reduces baby’s stress and pain levels
Another awesome benefit of kangaroo care is that it has been found to reduce pain and stress levels in babies. A study conducted on preterm infants found that babies who were held skin-to-skin by mom showed less distress during heel stick blood draws. Research supports that the practice reduces stress level hormones and increases Oxytocin flow, making baby feel safe and secure.
6) Better-quality sleep
Because infants are typically calm, warm and comforted while skin-to-skin, they have been found to sleep more deeply and wake less often than babies who are placed in incubators to sleep. In addition to sleeping better, they also display longer periods of alertness when awake.
7) Helps baby bond with dad
Skin-to-skin care is not only intended for moms but can be wonderful for dads too. Infants enjoy many of the same health and emotional benefits when snuggling skin-to-skin with dad as they do with mom such as thermal regulation, reduced crying and reduced stress. Also, dads who engaged in kangaroo care in the first hours after their baby is born reported bonding better with their babies compared to dads who did not. While ideally mom will be the first parent to experience skin-to-skin contact with the newborn, dad can step in and get some cuddles of his own when mom needs a break to take a shower or use the restroom.
As you can see, the benefits of practicing skin-to-skin care with your newborn extend far beyond just promoting bonding and breastfeeding. It is believed that the first two hours following birth are the most vital time to engage in kangaroo care but that it is beneficial up to 20 weeks old and beyond. The more time that you and your partner can spend with your infant in this comforting and natural state, the more you and your baby will thrive. For questions about this and all postpartum and birth related topics, contact Health Foundations to schedule a consultation with a midwife and a tour of the Birth Center.