Skin-to-skin contact: the amazing benefits of touch

Have you ever wondered if your baby really needs to be held this much? Have you ever wondered if it is true that cuddling and comforting a baby every time he cries is going to spoil him? 

Let me offer you some assurance, and scientific evidence supports this view. It is normal for a new baby to cry every time you put him down.  It is normal for your baby to be upset if he is not physically close to you when he is awake and aware of your absence.  And science has lots of evidence to support your baby’s need for closeness.  Science sadly also has proof of the long-term detrimental effect of sensory deprivation, caused by a lack of human touch.  But more about that later.


Skin-to-skin is natural, being separate is not

Way back in the days when humans lived in caves, touch was the ultimate signal for a baby to know he was safe.  Since then our brains and bodies have not changed much.  Even though we now have central heating and baby monitors, our bodies and minds are programmed for physical closeness.  Here is a great example to show that babies and mums are meant to connect through touch.  Research has shown that a mother’s chest can help a baby regulate his body temperature straight after birth.  This happens through skin-to-skin contact.  After birth the mother’s chest is one to two degrees warmer than the baby’s body temperature providing a natural warming area for the baby.  If the baby warms up the chest temperature drops, but can heat up again by two degrees in one minute if required.

One study even showed that a mum’s breasts can heat independently to regulate the temperature of twins.  Convincing evidence that skin-to-skin is beneficial after birth.


Breastfeeding fosters closeness

Of course the breasts are also the place for feeding and there is lots of research that supports the benefits of breastfeeding.  The nutritional aspect of breastfeeding is one thing, but the gentle touch offered during breastfeeding is also important for bonding.  If for any reason you cannot breastfeed, rest assured that you can still bond with your baby by holding him close whilst bottle feeding.  You can always give your baby an extra dose of sensory stimulation by undressing and holding your baby against your skin. 

Why would you undress when you don’t have to?  Because there is evidence to suggest that skin-to-skin contact reduces crying.  This is particularly true at around 6 weeks, when babies cry the most.  It calms babies and also makes them sleep better.  Physical contact especially increases deep sleep in babies, which helps brain development and growth. 


Skin-to-skin reduces stress not just in the baby

Skin-to-skin pictureAmazingly research has shown that touch not only reduces stress in the baby, but the mum too.  Physical contact with your baby will reduce the chances of developing depression.  My own feeling is that there is a bit of a chicken-and-egg going on here.  No mum wants to listen to a baby cry all the time.  It makes you miserable, helpless and gives you the feeling you are a bad parent if you can’t soothe your baby.  Simply increasing skin-to-skin contact has a calming effect on your baby.  There are no negative side effects.  Skin to skin works by releasing your happy hormones.  It also works by calming your baby, which gives your ears and mind a break.    


Touch deprivation causes long-lasting detrimental effects

There are two sources which give scientists evidence of the negative effects of touch deprivation.  They are premature babies and babies that grew up in Romanian orphanages.  The sad cases of Romanian orphanages are an extreme example of maltreatment.  But it is still remarkable what research can teach us.  The effects resulting from lack of physical contact are irreversible and long-lasting even into adulthood. Touch deprived humans show vastly different hormone levels as babies and as adults.   These hormones are linked to emotional and social bonding.  The lack of touch also has a profound effect on physical and mental growth. 

In comparison to Romanian orphans, babies in incubators are much better cared for.  But despite the right temperature, nourishment and extra oxygen, doctors recognised that premature babies suffered because of a lack of touch.  As a result hospitals all over the world introduced  kangaroo care (skin-to-skin contact) as standard procedure. 

And the results are amazing.  Premature babies that are massaged gain weight faster, are more active, alert and responsive than babies that are not massaged. 


Different types of touch by mum and dad  

Interestingly there seems to be a difference in how women and men touch babies.   Mums generally engage in touch in a more soothing and calming way, whilst dads are often more playful whilst physically interacting with a baby.  Both teach different things.  Mums communicate calming comfort and safety, whilst dad’s playful touch is more likely to teach awareness of self, especially body self.  It also helps a baby to practice the management of extremes of emotion such as excitement.


Staying physically connected long-term

There is no single parenting book that does not mention the importance of touch. 

A hug for comfort or a rough-and-tumble play keeps you connected with your baby throughout childhood.  Negative forms of touch like smacking or other abuse will never be forgotten, but become part of your brain structure and function.  Touch is an essential part of our happiness. 

 Mother and baby in skin-to-skin contact

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