Imagine arriving at an unknown place, a strange planet, alone, with no familiar voice and no one to guide you. At that critical moment, your survival would be at stake. But this is how a baby’s life begins outside the mother’s womb. The newborn experiences an unknown external world for the first time, and that’s why his or her basic need for skin-to-skin contact with the mother during the first 60 minutes is so important.
The warmth the mother’s body gives off, its familiar smell, and contact with the mother’s bare skin awaken critical survival mechanisms within the newborn. In fact, there are widely demonstrated physical and psychological benefits of holding the baby skin-to-skin for both the newborn and the mother.
What gets stimulated in a newborn’s first hours?
To allow a baby to adapt to their new environment, place them face down on the mother’s abdomen, with her breasts uncovered. Place a warm cloth over the newborn to conserve their body heat. Be careful not to dry the baby’s hands, as they are impregnated with amniotic fluid that carries the scent of their life inside the womb.
Sensory stimuli such as touch, warmth, and smell release messenger hormones in the newborn that make them alert in this critical moment for their survival. In these first minutes, the newborn needs heightened attention, energy, and motivation for the first learning experiences.
At the same time, the mother’s body responds by releasing the love hormone “oxytocin,” which facilitates emotional attachment, deepens her bond with the baby, and reduces pain. The close contact also releases prolactin to prompt the release of breast milk when the mammary gland is directly stimulated.
These first hours are special time for the health of both the mother and newborn. The simple action of placing the newborn on the mother’s bare abdomen provides an essential start to life. This moment of skin-to-skin contact help soothe and relax the baby, regulates their heart rate and breathing, stimulates digestion, triggers the impulse to breastfeed, regulates the baby’s temperature, and allows friendly bacteria from the mother’s skin to move to the baby so they are protected in their new environment. In addition, it increases the chances of successful exclusive breastfeeding, improves maternal self-efficacy, and lowers the likelihood of postpartum hemorrhage and early expulsion of the placenta.
What feeding and breastfeeding behaviors develop during skin-to-skin contact?
We have ample information about a newborn’s innate and instinctive learning process in these first hours. In her book, Widström suggests a 9-stage method for early self-regulation, showing both the mother and her baby the path to self-regulation.
- The first cry at birth is a distinct and specific cry that occurs when the baby’s lungs expand for the first time.
- This is followed by a moment of stillness and relaxation, without visible movements.
- Then the baby enters a state of awakening, where they open their eyes, blink, move their mouth, and make small hand and shoulder movements.
- Next comes a stage of more intense activity, where the baby makes increasingly larger movements with their arms, fingers, shoulders, and eyes, and lifts their head.
- The baby then takes a rest between stages, as if collecting energy to continue the process.
- In the next stage, called crawling, the baby instinctively moves towards the breast and nipple by sliding and rocking back and forth until they get there.
- In the familiarization stage, the newborn stays on the nipple, feeling it with their mouth, licking, tasting, touching, and moving around the areola.
- Then suckling begins when the baby attaches to the nipple and begins to nurse.
- After this one- to two-hour journey, the baby involuntarily enters the final stage, which is sleeping.
Although there is broad research and evidence on the benefits of skin-to-skin contact and early initiation of breastfeeding, according to UNICEF, less than half of newborns worldwide are breastfed in the first hour. It is imperative to increase this practice.
Did you know about skin-to-skin contact being the best start to a baby’s life? What was your experience in your family? Tell us in the comments.