As mammals, human babies rely on their mothers for close physical contact: Maternal touch supports a baby’s normal breathing, heart rate, and temperature and relieves stress. For preterm babies, who have spent less than 37 weeks inside their mother’s uterus, physical contact is even more important because it affects nervous system regulation, brain development, and pain management.
The benefits of skin-to-skin care
Experts increasingly recommend that parents of preterm babies practice skin-to-skin care. It wasn’t always this way—in the past, many hospitals isolated pre-term infants out of concern for the baby’s health. Studies have shown that skin-to-skin care offers a range of short- and long-term benefits for premature babies:
- better responses to stress
- better nervous system functioning
- more stable sleep patterns
- better cognitive control
Researchers also have found that preterm babies receiving skin-to-skin care:
- are less likely to develop hypothermia (low body temperature), hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), and sepsis (blood infection)
- are more likely to be breastfeeding exclusively when they’re discharged from the hospital (mothers who provide skin-to-skin care often breastfeed for longer periods)
- are less likely to be readmitted to the hospital
- have lower infant mortality rates
- gain weight faster
- move into an open crib sooner
- go home earlier
Skin-to-skin care also is good for parents and may help you:
- make more breast milk, the best food for most babies in the first year of life
- reduce your stress and depression
- build your confidence that you can take care of your baby
- feel close to your baby
Tips on skin-to-skin care
Babies benefit when parents provide as much skin-to-skin contact as possible with their newborn infants, for as long as possible. Here are practices to consider in providing skin-to-skin care to your baby:
- Offer skin-to-skin care early. As soon as your baby is stable and can be held for a period of time each day, ask your health care provider if you can place her underneath your clothing and cuddle her skin-to-skin against your chest. Safe and secure against your chest, your baby receives all the warmth she needs as she gets to know you. Plan to hold her like this for about an hour at a time. The most stressful time for your baby is when she’s being taken out of or put in the isolette, not the time she spends sleeping on your chest.
- Where possible, have both parents provide skin-to-skin care. The more skin-to-skin care the better, so both parents should participate whenever possible.
- Use other forms of contact when full skin-to-skin care isn’t possible. Consider other forms of contact when touch is restricted. For example, gently massaging your infant in the incubator can be soothing and beneficial for him. And the March of Dimes notes that if your baby isn’t well enough, you can use “hand hugs”: With your baby lying on his back, put one hand gently on his head and the other gently on his stomach or around his feet. Doing hand hugs can sometimes calm your baby when he’s fussy. It also can make you feel better because you can see your baby breathing and being calmed by your touch. (Don’t stroke him, since stroking can be overwhelming for babies.)
Parents with infants in a neonatal intensive care unit can sometimes feel powerless to help their premature baby. But they should be confident in the importance of touch to their child’s well-being and in development of the parent-child bond.
Learn more about Navigating the NICU here.