Skin-to-skin contact, also called kangaroo care, is a unique way for parents and newborn babies to bond. During skin-to-skin contact, a baby, wearing only a diaper, lies on a parent's bare chest.
"Skin-to-skin contact started in Colombia," explains Lisa Wulz, RN, Quality Program Manager of the Neonatal-Perinatal Program at Children's Health℠. "They lacked isolettes to keep premature babies warm, so they enlisted moms to help."
Physicians in Colombia noticed major benefits to premature babies. Skin-to-skin contact can also help full-term babies.
How do premature and newborn babies benefit from skin-to-skin contact?
Premature babies who are kept in skin-to-skin contact with their mothers are usually discharged earlier than babies who do not participate in skin-to-skin contact. Research has also shown additional benefits of skin-to-skin contact for premature babies, such as:
- Better temperature regulation
- Improved survival rates
- Lower risk of infection and illness
- Increased weight gain
- Increased rates of breastfeeding
With all of these benefits, it didn't take long for kangaroo care to become a component in hospitals around the United States. And its benefits impact not only premature infants but all newborns. Research suggests that skin-to-skin contact helps babies through the transitional period after birth.
"It is a big transition for a baby to go from having their mom's body take care of their every need to their own body providing oxygen, circulation and other critical functions," says Wulz.
Can parents benefit from skin-to-skin contact?
Babies are not the only ones who benefit from skin-to-skin; moms and dads can experience health and emotional benefits from skin-to-skin contact as well.
Skin-to-skin contact reduces mom's stress, promotes healing and can also increase breast milk production. Studies have found that parents who participate in kangaroo care feel more confident in their parenting and experience less anxiety. Skin-to-skin contact also promotes bonding with baby in both mom and dad.
"Moms had an increased sense of attachment to babies even though they were in the NICU," says Wulz. "And they found that when they put the baby on dad's chest, it also increased attachment and bonding with dads."
How long should you do skin-to-skin?
Many hospitals now promote skin-to-skin contact within seconds of a baby's birth, placing the baby directly on mom's chest as long as the baby is stable. They also encourage breastfeeding for the first time within an hour of baby's birth.
"We recommend this first contact last for at least an hour because it allows for one cycle of sleep to take place," says Jerithea Tidwell, APRN, PNP-PC and Clinical Nurse Specialist for the Neonatal-Perinatal Program.
Though there isn't a lot of research about skin-to-skin contact once babies are home, it may have similar benefits.
"Most of the research around skin-to-skin contact focuses on the benefits in a hospital setting, including the NICU and ICU," says Tidwell. "However, whether in the hospital or at home, parents should see an increase in bonding and moms will see an increase in breast milk production."
Tidwell and Wulz caution parents to be careful when practicing skin-to-skin contact at home and always use a buddy system when you are cuddling your baby.
"The American Academy of Pediatrics does not recommend falling asleep in a chair with your baby," says Wulz. "When a parent is doing skin-to-skin, it's important to have someone else around to check on you and make sure you don't fall asleep, especially in the first few weeks at home when a parent gets less rest."
While there is little research on the benefits of skin-to-skin contact in older babies, you can enjoy the practice with your child for many months after they are born. Many parents continue to practice skin-to-skin bonding as their baby grows, especially when the baby is upset or ill at home. "A baby knows mommy's smell and heart rate, and that is very soothing to the baby," says Tidwell.
From prenatal diagnosis through delivery and the NICU, the collaborative and compassionate team at Children's Health is equipped to deliver any care or treatment your baby may need from fetus to 5 years old. Learn more about our Neonatal-Perinatal Medicine Programs.
Stay current on the health and wellness information that makes a difference to you and your family. Sign up for the Children's Health newsletter and have more expert tips and insights sent directly to your inbox.