Holding your newborn against your bare chest can have effects that extend far beneath the skin's surface.
"When I had my third child I was able to hold him much sooner than my first two," says Carrie Smith, MD, an ob/gyn at Rush University Medical Center, whose older children needed medical care right after birth. "And that contact helped me feel calmer and more comfortable."
Over the years, Smith has delivered a lot of babies whose moms felt the same way. And a growing body of research suggests that this sense of well-being is only one of the many benefits of skin-to-skin contact.
The body’s largest organ, skin is primarily made up of epithelial and connective tissues. Its functions include protecting internal organs, keeping out infection and regulating body temperature.
Skin-to-skin contact — that is, contact between an adult's bare chest and an infant wearing only a diaper — can help newborns' bodies perform these jobs.
"For example," Smith says, "the baby being naked against mom's chest can bring his or her body to the exact right temperature." It can also transfer healthy bacteria from mother to infant, strengthening the baby's immune system.
Research shows that when parents have skin-to-skin contact with babies born prematurely, those babies are able to leave the hospital earlier and have fewer health problems.
Another major advantage of skin-to-skin contact is that it makes breastfeeding easier and more likely to work on the first try.
"If the baby is placed on the mom's chest for at least the first hour after birth," Smith explains, "the baby will naturally find the breast."
Sometimes, she adds, "patients are worried about it being messy, the baby being wet or there being a little bit of blood — but afterward they're usually glad they chose to do it." At Rush, nurses dry babies off as they lie on their mothers' chests and then stay in the room to help.
"A mom will look down and see her baby's face, and often the baby's eyes will be open, and she can see her baby's eyes for the first time," Smith says. "These moments are really touching, and it's so meaningful to be a part of them."
Holding a baby skin to skin throughout his or her first few months of life can promote stable body temperature, heart rate and blood sugar levels, as well as parent-child bonding, easier breastfeeding and less crying.
Of course, if a mother has a cesarean section or a baby needs immediate medical attention, skin-to-skin contact isn't always possible in the first hours after birth.
But that's not the only time it can have benefits. Holding a baby skin to skin throughout his or her first few months of life can promote stable body temperature, heart rate and blood sugar levels, as well as parent-child bonding, easier breastfeeding and less crying.
"The more contact, the better," Smith says.
Sign up now for free health tips and medical news.