Why skin to skin is so important

Skin to skin contact, otherwise known as kangaroo care, is important for many reasons.
Skin to skin contact, otherwise known as kangaroo care, is important for many reasons.  Photo: Getty Images

If you're expecting a baby then you will probably have heard of the term 'skin to skin'. But while it may sound self-explanatory, there's more to it than you may think.

In practical terms, skin to skin, which is also known as 'kangaroo care', simply means placing the baby on to the mother's chest immediately after the birth, so the baby's skin is in direct contact with the mother's.

"Most people think of skin to skin as a way of bonding with the baby. But there are lots of other reasons to do it," says practicing midwife Lisa Berson.

"Studies have shown that skin to skin can assist in increasing or maintaining a baby's temperature following the birth, or if the baby is receiving treatment in the intensive care unit of the hospital," Berson explains.

Mother of four Maria Tedeschi has witnessed this first hand. All Maria's babies were placed directly on her chest for skin to skin contact, but when her eldest daughter's temperature started to drop she was taken away and placed under a heat lamp.

Eight years later, at the birth of her fourth baby, the same thing happened, but the reaction from the doctors was very different. "Instead of putting him under a heater they told me to strip down again and hold him, skin to skin, to get his temperature back up," Maria says.

"When I asked about the heater they told me that skin to skin contact had better results in regulating temperature."

Most Australian hospitals acknowledge the importance of skin to skin care and have policies or guidelines in place to support it in both caesarean and vaginal births.

However, it is a good idea for women to tell their caregivers that that want to have skin to skin contact after the delivery.

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Fiona Purcell, a mum of two, was keen to enjoy skin to skin contact with her second baby. But the birth didn't go as planned, and Fiona was told that as her labour wasn't progressing she would need to have an emergency c-section.

"When I was initially told that I needed an emergency caesarean I sobbed and sobbed – mostly because I feared the thought of my baby being taken away from me," she says.

"I just wanted to be able to hold and feed my son, and feel his heart beating against mine. I knew he would be safe in his mummy's arms."

Fortunately Fiona was able to express her wishes to her caregivers, and plans were made for her newborn baby to stay with her after his delivery.

"I was exhausted and groggy from the epidural and birth, but determined to give my boy his first feed and feel his skin against mine. The thought of him not being with me was devastating, so I was hugely relieved when I was told he could be with me in recovery," she explains.

Another benefit of skin to skin contact is that it can help encourage breastfeeding, says birth educator Lucretia McCarthy. "Skin to skin in the first hour after the birth is a great way to encourage breastfeeding," she says.

"If the baby is given enough time she'll eventually find the breast herself – babies have amazing instincts."

Like many midwives, McCarthy is a huge advocate of skin to skin, but does acknowledge that the unpredictable nature of labour means it isn't always possible.

She has a solution, however: "If mum is unable to do skin to skin with baby after birth, then skin to skin with dad is the next best thing!"