Benefits of Skin-to-Skin Contact (It’s for Dad, too!)

The other night before bedtime story, my three-year-old pulled up his pajamas, put his stuffed piggy on his chest, claiming, “I’m breastfeeding Piggy!”

“Oh that’s sweet!” I said, “But I’m not sure if you can do that—boys don’t have milk.”

“I’m a big MAN!” He corrected me. He likes to call himself a big man these days.

“Okay, big man. Still, men don’t have milk, either.”

He paused, then announced, “I’m skin-to-skin Piggy!”

I laughed. That was cute. I snapped a shot with my cellphone. I have no idea where he learned about the term “skin-to-skin.” But he was right—while skin-to-skin (baby naked, not wrapped in a blanket) contact between mom and baby helps breastfeeding, skin-to-skin contact between dad and baby can be beneficial, too. It is the easiest way to form a secure attachment and does a lot more than promote bonding.

It helps baby adapt
Thermal regulation is a very common problem with infants, especially preterm babies. When the baby was in the womb, he didn’t need to regulate his own temperature. Since parents’ skin is the same temperature as the womb, baby will find it easier to adapt to his post-birth environment.

It boosts baby’s mental and brain development
Skin-to-skin contact is a multi-sensory experience. Holding baby on parent’s skin increases the development of essential neural pathways, which accelerates brain maturation. According to a Canadian study, preemies who received skin-to-skin contact had better brain functioning at 15 years old—comparable to that of adolescents born full term—than those who had been placed in incubators. The research shows skin-to-skin contacted babies spend more time in quiet sleep, which stabilizes their heart rate, enhances organizational patterns in the brain and helps the brain develop better.

It promotes healthy weight
One Cochrane Library review concluded that skin-to-skin contact dramatically increases newborn weight gain. When babies are warm, they don’t need to use their energy to regulate their body temperature. They can use that energy to grow instead. Plus, skin-to-skin touched babies enjoy increased breastfeeding rates, which can’t hurt healthy weight gain.

It reduces baby’s stress and pain
Just 10 minutes of skin-to-skin contact reduces babies’ level of the stress hormone cortisol, and increases levels of the “cuddle hormone” oxytocin, which stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system to make babies feel calm and safe, according a research published in AACN Clinical Issues. “When preterm infants are held chest-to-chest, they react less to heel sticks, a minimally invasive way to draw blood, and a common source of pain among preemies,” said Dr. Susan M. Ludington, the lead author of the research.

It helps baby sleep Less stress equals to better sleep. Preemies who were cradled skin-to-skin slept more deeply and woke up less often than those who slept in incubators, reported the journal Pediatrics.

There are now a multitude of studies that show that mothers and babies should be together, skin-to-skin immediately after birth. After that, continued skin-to-skin can still be beneficial, either between mom and baby or dad and baby. The baby is happier, the baby’s temperature is more stable, the baby’s heart and breathing rates are more normal, and the baby’s blood sugar is more elevated.

From their time in the womb, babies recognize their fathers’ voice. Babies find skin-to-skin contact with dad calming, and it helps dad and baby bond. So get snuggling. Happy, happy Father’s Day!

This is an original post to San Diego County Breastfeeding Coalition by To-wen Tseng.