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A Mother's Touch Helps Newborn Baby Thrive

March 12, 2013

'Skin-to-Skin' Contact After Birth Is Part of Baby-Friendly Care

"There is nothing that helps reduce stress like the human touch."

That's how pediatric nurse and certified lactation consultant Debbie Hunt, RN, IBCLC, describes one benefit of Washington Hospital Birthing Center's efforts to provide early skin-to-skin contact for mothers and their newborn babies whenever possible.

Early skin-to-skin care entails placing the naked baby chest down on the mother's bare chest and then covering the baby with blankets to keep him warm. In ideal situations, skin-to-skin contact happens immediately or shortly after birth and continues at least until after the baby's first breastfeeding session.

"The birth process is stressful for the baby, and if you do some procedures such as weighing and measuring the newborn on a hard surface immediately after the birth, that can be even more stressful and frightening," explains Hunt. "In most cases, it's really not necessary to do those procedures right away. We can take the baby's vital signs and perform the APGAR tests to measure the baby's breathing, color, muscle tone, strength of cry and heart rate while the baby is on the mother's chest.

"Placing the baby directly on the mother's chest where it can hear mom's heartbeat calms the baby," she adds. "Skin-to-skin contact also helps the baby adapt to a new environment outside the womb where it has to adjust to the temperature of the air and breathing. Newborns have a natural crawling reflex, and usually within the first hour of skin-to-skin contact with the mother, they can orient themselves to the mother's breast and 'latch on' to begin nursing, taking in the colostrum that is the mother's first milk for the baby."

Hunt notes that several objective scientific studies have shown that early skin-to-skin contact helps stabilize the newborn's temperature, blood pressure, heart rate, blood-sugar level and breathing.

"Our nurses definitely notice the difference that early skin-to-skin contact makes," Hunt says. "I can hear a difference in the baby's cry. Babies who have had skin-to-skin contact will still cry when we weigh them after the first feeding, but they calm down more quickly, and their cries are not as fearful."

Dr. Stacey Barrie, an obstetrician who practices at Washington Hospital, notes that early skin-to-skin contact benefits the mothers as well as the babies.

"I've noticed that mothers are much more relaxed when they are in skin-to-skin contact with the baby while I am delivering the placenta and performing other post-delivery procedures," Barrie says. "By the time I'm done caring for the mother, the baby usually has already latched on to the breast and is feeding. Early nursing is good for the mom, too, because it helps with pain control and reduces post-delivery bleeding."

The goal in providing skin-to-skin contact is to get the baby to the mother as soon as possible after birth, but there may be some cases in which it isn't possible right away.

"Early skin-to-skin contact is practical and preferable with most deliveries, including caesarian - or C-section - deliveries," Barrie says. "For a mother who has had a C-section, we can place the baby on her chest, above the surgical drape, while we're finishing with sutures and so forth. Moms who have skin-to-skin contact with their babies soon after a C-section seem much more focused on their babies' faces than what's going on behind the drape.

"However," Barrie cautions, "if a baby is in distress after an emergency C-section, or if there is any other serious problem with a baby's or mother's health, we might not be able to allow skin-to-skin contact right away. It also might not be advisable to have early skin-to-skin contact if the mom is highly anxious about having C-section surgery, or if she has experienced nausea or vomiting during surgery."

Providing early skin-to-skin contact is just one aspect of Washington Hospital Birthing Center's current efforts to become designated as a "Baby-Friendly" facility. Only about 6 percent of hospitals in the country have earned this designation, and the staff at Washington Hospital is determined to join those ranks.

"There are other components to being considered Baby-Friendly," Barrie explains. "The staff has to go through significant training. Babies are kept with their mothers in the hospital, rather than being whisked away to a nursery. Also, we offer only breastfeeding unless there is a specific reason why it would not be recommended, such as if the mother is HIV-positive or is taking certain medications or is on chemotherapy. We do not accept free formula from manufacturers, nor do we do any 'merchandising' of formula or other baby products by giving away free samples to the parents."

Long an advocate for breastfeeding, Barrie describes breast milk as: "The right food, in the right container, at the right time, at the right temperature."

Lactation consultant Hunt elaborates: "Breast milk is uniquely designed for human babies. It has the highest lactose content of any mammal milk, which is essential for human brain development. Breast milk also has enzymes to aid with digestion, as well as anti-bacterial, anti-viral and anti-parasitic factors to help the baby resist infections and allergic reactions. In addition, you can't really over-feed a baby with breastfeeding, and it has been shown to reduce the rates of obesity in children, which can carry over into adulthood."

In addition to being best for baby, breastfeeding offers many benefits for mom. "Breastfeeding can help new mothers lose weight more readily, and it decreases their risk of breast cancer," says Barrie. "During breastfeeding, the body produces oxytocin, which helps the uterus contract and control bleeding. It also is relaxing for both the baby and mother. There's really no downside to breastfeeding."

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that women breastfeed their babies exclusively for at least the first six months, when complimentary foods may be introduced gradually, and to continue breastfeeding for at least the first year of life, preferably to two years of life and beyond.

"Breastfeeding declined in popularity several years ago, but it has been on the rise again in recent years," Hunt observes. "Our baby-friendly approach at Washington Hospital, including our practice of early skin-to-skin contact for mothers and newborns, can help mothers be more successful in breastfeeding. The more early skin-to-skin contact they have with their babies, the sooner their milk comes in, and skin-to-skin contact increases the release of hormones that stimulate greater milk production, too.

"A baby's greatest need is to feel 'connected' - that's part of our survival instinct," she adds. "Skin-to-skin contact and breastfeeding contribute to early 'bonding' that helps the baby develop a sense of security in the world. It's the first step in a healthy life."

Learn More About the Washington Hospital Birthing Center

The Washington Hospital Birthing Center offers comprehensive medical care for mom and baby in a compassionate, family-centered environment. Our experienced maternal/child medical team provides the support and expertise for the kind of birth experience you are looking for. Visit www.whhs.com/womens-health to learn more about our wide range of classes, services and programs.