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What is skin to skin contact?

Most studies define skin-to-skin contact as the practice where after the baby has been delivered it is dried and placed on the mother`s bare chest for about an hour or more.

It can also take place later and it is advisable to keep practicing skin to skin contact even way after birth. Other studies have called it Kangaroo care as it is compared to how a kangaroo keeps its young ones in its pouch thus practicing skin-to-skin contact. UNICEF has embraced the practice and has called it The Baby-Friendly Initiative. The practice has also been incorporated in the Mexican Public Health Care System

Why is skin to skin contact important?

The practice has proved to be very essential to a baby’s growth both in neonatal and other stages. Some of the key reasons why it is important are;

  • It allows both the mother and child to rest after the long process of parturition 
  • It  creates homeostatic balance in the baby’s body through things like thermoregulation and regulation of heart rate and breathing
  • It promotes breastfeeding and stimulates digestion
  • It also offers a chance for the mother`s good bacteria to interact with the baby’s skin which is important in preparing it for life outside the womb
  • Maternal hormones are stimulated and released which leads to other activities like breastfeeding
  • It helps an infant to develop physiological stability
  • It also promotes metabolic balance and optimal neurological development

What happens during skin to skin contact?

 At first, both the mother and child enter a state of relaxation which in turn reduces postpartum stress for both of them. At the same time, the baby undergoes homeostatic development which helps it to adapt to the extra-uterine environment. The mother releases hormones that engage the child and might end up crying.

The cry as most studies show is characterized as brief and distinctive. The baby then relaxes with few movements. After a while, the baby wakes up and is seen to respond to the mother’s voice which is why communication is encouraged. The movements increase where the baby moves the hips, shoulders, and even the head.

The baby then finds the breasts and rests on the breasts. It is a common misconception that when the baby does this it is not hungry which is not true. The baby then attaches itself to the breast and starts feeding. At this point, they might need help in positioning them for feeding. Once feeding is complete the mother and the baby fall asleep.

Skin to skin contact in the Baby-Friendly standards

The Baby Friendly standards insist on making sure skin to skin contact is an essential concept in hospitals. They do this by setting guidelines for maternity and neonatal units.

Maternity units are supposed to ensure;

  • All mothers have SSC after birth for at least an hour
  • Mothers offer first feed once the baby shows readiness to feed
  • Mothers and babies who are unable to carry out SSC after birth to do so as soon as they can

Neonatal units have been charged with;

  • Advising parents on the need and impact of touch, comfort and communication on a baby’s health and development
  • Encouraging parents to provide comfort and emotional support to their babies
  • Ensuring that mothers receive proper care that leads to them  transitioning to breastfeeding

Benefits of skin to skin contact 

  • Development of heart and lung function

Once a baby has been safely delivered the heart and lung function are crucial to the development of the baby. Being in close contact with the mother is the closest thing to being back in the womb.

This, therefore, enables them to adapt accordingly to the environment which boosts their heart and lung functionality. Studies have shown that babies who do not get the skin to skin contact have a hard time breathing and most of the time have an elevated heart rate.

  • Thermoregulation 

Keeping the baby in close contact with the mother ensures their warmth. In fact many doctors have argued that skin to skin contact is better than placing the baby in an incubator. It also helps them to adapt to the temperature making them more independent. This in turn ensures that they are healthy and maintain a constant body temperature

  • Blood sugar regulation

Babies need blood sugar for energy so that their bodies can carry out various developments. It is due to this that they need skin to skin contact so they can initiate breastfeeding so they can get the energy they need from milk. Babies born from mothers with gestational diabetes are at a higher risk of having hypoglycemia and should therefore practice skin to skin contact to stabilize their blood sugar level

  • Instigation of breastfeeding

Skin to skin contact plays a major role in initiating breastfeeding. During skin to skin contact hormones are released which engage the child and mother to develop certain instincts which lead to breastfeeding. It is also through skin to skin contact that the mother generates hormones which lead to the production of more milk.

  • Colonization of bacteria

Contact between the mother and child enables transfer of good bacteria which is key in protecting the baby from pathogens. The bacteria also help the baby to develop certain immunities which cannot be obtained in any other way. Some bacteria can break down milk proteins which the child is not able to digest thus ensuring that the baby obtains all the nutrients from breast milk.

  • Reduced crying among infants

Crying is an instinctive action conducted by all mammals once separated from offspring, they cry as a way to try and reconnect with parents. It therefore makes perfect sense that babies who are in skin to skin contact with their parents cry less as they are comfortable and satisfied to be with their parents. They will therefore cry less as they feel protected unlike babies who are separated from their mothers

  • Relief from pain and good state of mind

Various studies conducted all over show that babies tend to feel less pain when in skin to skin contact. This is because they are comfortable and hence are more relaxed which reduces the pain level. Skin to skin contact also helps to reduce fetal stress. This ensures they are in a good state of mind which in turn leads to better sleep due to a feeling of comfort and security

  • Communication 

Mothers are encouraged to enhance communication with their babies as it is during skin to skin contact that it is most effective. Various observations have been made where babies have been seen to respond to their mother’s voice during skin to skin contact clearly showing the importance of communication during skin to skin contact.

  • Easier transition

Research has also shown that babies that undergo skin to skin contact have an easier transition from the womb as compared to those who don’t. They have added advantages like being more physiologically stable and better at breastfeeding. They also cry less and have a lower pain response all due to skin to skin contact. Skin to skin contact makes them feel like the time inside the womb and thus have an easier time adapting to the new environment as it seems familiar.

  • Bonding 

Skin to skin contact greatly strengthens the bond between a mother and child as being in close contact with each other makes them develop certain instincts. This is clearly illustrated when a child is seen to respond to the mother`s voice during skin to skin contact. Touch familiarizes them with each other and even helps them develop certain instincts which help them understand each other better. The hormones released at this time also strengthen their bond as they are the reason they begin to develop certain instincts towards each other.

  • Mental development

Studies have shown that through skin to skin contact babies develop optimal neurological development by engaging each other. This is quite clear as some babies are seen to respond to their mother’s voice during skin to skin contact which is a sign of mental development. Activities like determining the right time to rest and the right time to breastfeed are all due to mental development. Various doctors argue that the effect is clear even in later stages of life thus making skin to skin contact very important.

  • Healthy weight 

When babies are with their mothers during skin to skin contact they receive warmth from their mothers` body and thus don’t lose energy in generating heat thus ensuring they maintain their weight. Skin to skin contact also reduces fetal stress which if not controlled could lead to loss of weight and thus maintain a standard weight. Studies have shown that babies gain more weight when sleeping and since skin to skin contact ensures they have better sleep they therefore gain the required weight thus maintaining a healthy weight.

  • Increased milk supply

During skin to skin contact a mother releases more hormones which in turn lead to production of more milk which is essential to a child. Fetal movements around the breast also lead to development of certain maternal instincts which also lead to production of more milk.

  • Prevention of postpartum depression

Skin to skin contact ensures that both the mother and child get adequate rest which is a great way to curb postpartum stress. The comfort and security generated by skin to skin contact also help to keep the baby relaxed and thus avoiding complications that may arise due to postpartum depression. The practice also gives time for the mother and child to bond which is also another way to reduce postpartum depression

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