Skin-to-skin contact between a mum and her new baby is the most primal of instincts, and a source of curiosity within the world of science.
Since the early 1990s, the World Health Organisation and UNICEF have advocated for post-birth skin-to-skin as part of their Baby Friendly Hospitals initiative, in order to increase breastfeeding rates. We know that in ancient cultures and developing countries, a baby’s survival could indeed depend on having skin-to-skin (sometimes called kangaroo mother care) contact with its mother.
In the western world, many researchers have found it’s perfect post-delivery for baby--regulating temperature, heart rate and immunity-- and for encouraging bonding between mum and baby. Where the research falls short is whether there are any benefits to the mother as a single entity.
Some studies hint that, “Skin-to-skin contact improves physiologic stability for both mother and baby in the vulnerable period immediately after birth”, but a focus on the mother is generally outside the realm of research. And while it’s been found that skin-to-skin can reduce maternal depression and anxiety, it’s generally dismissed as a by-product of the positive effects on the baby (that is, a more settled baby equals a less stressed mum). The closest we come to looking at the benefits to the mother is in a recent study that found holding her premature baby can reduce a mum’s stress levels.
Skin to skin is very powerful, and it does help mums postnatally.
Anecdotally, however, we come a little closer to the possibilities of the mysterious benefits of touch in the moments following birth. Twenty-two British mums, with different cultural backgrounds, took part in a tiny report and all agreed that skin-to-skin increased their maternal confidence.
“Skin to skin is very powerful, and it does help mums postnatally,” says midwife Cath Curtin. “Some women do have a detachment towards their baby at birth, and the closer they are at birth and the sooner they touch their baby, the better.”
My own experience is one of intense physical reaction to skin-to-skin contact. My second baby was born unexpectedly quickly, resulting in an accidental homebirth; I went into shock, detaching from the scene and shaking uncontrollably.
With my blood pressure plummeting and blood loss increasing at the hospital an hour later, I managed to form the words, “I haven’t held my baby yet”. Quickly, my baby was placed on top of me and my world changed instantly; the mood calmed as the medical staff reported my vital stats evening out and the part of me that had been watching from above returned.
As it turned out, all I’d needed was my baby.
Curtin says this is common. “Many women go into a shocked feeling. It’s like running a marathon and, while getting a medal will be great, you’re tired and you’ll get around to loving it later,” she says. “But if you hold the baby – touch it and smell it – it makes a real difference to mums.”
Quickly, my baby was placed on top of me and my world changed instantly.
One mum I spoke to, Kathleen, says she felt the same after her long labour resulted in an emergency caesarean. “I think having your baby skin-to-skin is extremely beneficial for any mother postpartum, but particularly following a high-level intervention or traumatic birth, as it helps to bring down the stress hormones and flood in the love hormones - or it certainly did for me!”
This is not a one-size-fits-all answer, however. Curtin says, “There are two sides to every story, and some women don’t want that skin-to-skin contact. It needs to be discussed and the mother has to want it and give her permission.”
For many, though, the anecdotes are showing that physical contact between mum and baby could, perhaps, run more than skin deep.
Image courtesy of Flickr/ Save the Children.