Kangaroo Care: Benefits of Skin-to-Skin and How to Do It
What if I told you that with one hour a day, you can dramatically improve your baby’s mental and physical development?
As the benefits of skin-to-skin are uncovered, more and more parents and medical professionals are implementing this easy, natural strategy. Although you’ve probably heard about kangaroo care at some point, the actual concept and technique might seem a little confusing.
Welcome to the Ultimate Guide to Skin-to-Skin with Baby. I wrote this article for parents just like you that want to learn everything they can about this miracle technique. Here you’ll learn exactly what kangaroo care is, its benefits, and how you can safely and effectively implement skin-to-skin with your premature or full-term baby.
By the end of this article, I hope you’ll feel prepared and excited to use this unique bonding experience in your own life.
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Kangaroo Care 101: Benefits of Skin-to-Skin and How to Do It
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What is Skin-to-Skin or Kangaroo Care
Skin-to-skin refers to the practice of laying your infant on your chest, uninterrupted and without any barriers, for about an hour.
Ideally, this would happen immediately after birth, within the first hour (AKA the Sacred Hour, Golden Hour, or Magical Hour). The goal is to practice skin-to-skin for at least an hour, but moms have experienced benefits with as little as 20 minutes.
Kangaroo mother care, or kangaroo care for short, is considered an interchangeable term for skin-to-skin. However, kangaroo care often refers to the intensive, round-the-clock version used for premature or sick babies.
Dr. Edgar Rey, a pediatrician from a under-equipped, overcrowded hospital in Bogota, Columbia, researched the technique in a desperate attempt to lower infant mortality rates. Essentially, he developed kangaroo care as an alternative to using an incubator.
Dr. Rey found that when the mother or father laid their baby on their bare chest for an uninterrupted amount of time, the baby would not only stay warm, but be much more likely to survive and grow.
In fact, using this practice, Dr. Rey was able to send his preemies home sooner and eliminate much of the overflow in his hospital.
If you haven’t read Dr. Rey’s story , it truly is an inspiring tale worthy of your time.
When is the Best Time to Do It
Ideally, you’ll want to practice skin-to-skin during continuously during the first hour of your baby’s life, “the Sacred Hour”. As long as you and baby is stable, he should be placed on your chest the moment he’s born. For the most part, providers are willing to check his vitals while he’s on your chest and perform the measurements at a later time.
There’s some debate whether your baby should be dried before skin-to-skin. When your baby receives skin-to-skin directly from the birth canal, he will still be covered in the creamy biofilm, vernix.
Vernix has numerous benefits, including added protection from potentially harmful bacteria and increased colonization of good bacteria from your vagina and skin.
Having said that, studies have found that washing your baby before skin-to-skin is more beneficial if you’ve been tested positive for Strep B.
Is it Too Late to Start Skin to Skin with Baby?
What if you didn’t get any skin-to-skin with baby during that Sacred Hour? Is it still worth it?
Studies show that kangaroo care is still beneficial if it’s practiced any time during your baby’s first 24 hours of life. Many of the benefits we’ll go over below aren’t just from derived from the first hour of life. They stem from continuous skin-to-skin throughout your baby’s first three months of life.
When to Stop Skin-to-Skin
The next big question: kangaroo care until what age?
Most experts believe preemies benefit from kangaroo care the most for the first 20 weeks of life. Full-term babies should receive regular skin-to-skin until about 3 months.
Really, it depends on you and your baby. By 3 months, your baby will most likely be mobile and very uninterested in snuggling.
Skin-to-Skin and C-Sections
By default, skin-to-skin after a c-section is shockingly low, so it’s important to have a discussion about it.
According to Evidence Based Birth, only 70% of uncomplicated c-sections result in skin-to-skin with baby within the first two hours of life. In these situations, the hospital staff will take the baby to a warmer, wipe him down, assess his vitals and measurements, and attend to you in a separate space.
However, in many situations, you can request to have immediate skin-to-skin even after a c-section.
In fact, without the flora from your vaginal canal encasing baby in a cover of good bacteria, skin-to-skin is more important than ever. Studies have actually proven that immediate skin-to-skin after a c-section can reduce complications for baby and you.
What do you do if you’re unable to provide skin-to-skin?
That’s where dad or another family member can take over. As long as your baby is healthy, you can request that dad provides kangaroo care for your baby.
He may not be able to give baby the benefits of breastfeeding or vaginal bacteria colonization, but there are several benefits of skin-to-skin with dad that you don’t want to miss out on (we’ll go over those benefits in a minute).
If you’re planning a c-section and want to learn more about the benefits of skin-to-skin with baby, I highly recommend reading this article by Evidence Based Birth. The statistics surrounding c-sections and kangaroo care are absolutely astounding.
Skin-to-Skin with Premature Babies
Now we’re finally coming back full-circle: skin-to-skin with preemies.
Kangaroo care is a powerful technique that is still used in overcrowded hospitals in South Africa and South America today. Practicing skin-to-skin allows mothers leave the hospital sooner, reduces infant mortality rates, and can regulate baby’s vitals more efficiently than an incubator.
In addition, numerous studies have concluded that premature babies gain weight faster and even show stronger mental development even into adulthood.
Having said that, it’s important to trust the medical advice of your doctor’s too. Skin-to-skin contact is absolutely important, but it should only be practiced once your baby’s life is no longer in danger.
Skin-to-Skin With Dad
If mom isn’t around to experience skin-to-skin with baby, your child can still reap these benefits with dad.
Kangaroo care with dad not only allows baby to experience the benefits of skin-to-skin when mom needs to rest, but it’s an incredible bonding experience for new fathers. A study in Taiwan found that fathers who practiced skin-to-skin reported more of an emotional bond with their child and experienced less anxiety with handling their new babies.
Skin-to-skin with fathers is actually linked with more parental confidence and increased involvement!
The Benefits of Skin-to-Skin
Regulates Baby’s Body Temperature
Research has found that skin-to-skin not only adequately regulates baby’s body temperature, but it actually works better than an incubator. Believe it or not, your breasts regulate your baby’s body temperature.
A study in Uganda found that mother’s exhibit “maternal autonomic nerve‐mediated skin vasodilatation.” Basically, the mother’s skin reacts to the presence of her baby and adjusts temperature accordingly.
Vernix can also assist with insulating and regulating your baby’s temperature. Remember, that’s the creamy biofilm that covers your baby when he’s born.
Improves Lung and Heart Function
Once your baby lays on your chest, his body starts taking its cues from yours. Studies have found that your baby’s heart rate stabilizes and oxygen levels increase dramatically during skin-to-skin contact.
This phenomenon increases brain development and decreases infant mortality rates. In fact, there’s actually one miraculous tale of a mother who was able to revive her baby simply by using skin-to-skin.
This is one of those benefits of skin-to-skin that you and your baby will continue to reap for the first year of his life. Research has shown that babies who have early skin-to-skin breastfeed around 3 weeks longer than babies without regular skin- to-skin.
There’s a couple reasons for this:
When your baby is first born and laid on your chest, he’ll instinctively begin the breast crawl. The breast crawl is exactly like it sounds; your baby will gradually scoot and slide up your chest, instinctively nuzzling and feeling for your nipples. This process stimulates your colostrum production, increases the likelihood of your baby’s ability to latch, and even helps you expel your placenta quicker.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Continued skin-to-skin will increase your milk supply and can even improve your baby’s latch. One Swedish study concluded that latching problems are much more likely to resolve with consistent skin-to-skin contact.
Note: If all of this breastfeeding terminology is confusing, I highly recommend taking the Ultimate Breastfeeding Class. It’s an online breastfeeding class that teaches you everything you need to know for under $20. I took it, loved it, and can’t recommend it enough!
Transfers Good Bacteria
During baby’s first few months of life, his immune system will be severely compromised. Your body is capable of giving him the essential immunities and “good bacteria” he needs to survive. One study showed that while most of the beneficial bacteria in a breastfed baby’s digestive tract comes from his mother’s breast milk, 10% actually came from the skin on mom’s breast.
Your skin contains helps good bacteria colonize, which helps with the decolonization of any bad bacteria festering in your baby.
Your baby can also receive good bacteria from your vaginal canal, which is why some experts recommend practicing skin-to-skin before washing.
(That is, unless you’ve been tested positive for Strep B).
Reduces Stress and Crying
When baby is contentedly snuggling with your breasts or chest, he’s producing oxytocin (the love hormone). This hormone, in turn, reduces the production of cortisol (the stress hormone). Babies that receive the benefits of skin-to-skin are usually found to deal with stress better, cope with pain easier, and cry less overall.
Blood Sugar Regulation
This benefit of skin-to-skin leads to the next: stabilizing blood sugar. Because skin-to-skin increases your baby’s oxygen saturation rate, his glucose levels are increased as well. Glucose is an essential component to regulating your baby’s blood sugar. Studies have also found that newborns that experience skin-to-skin are less likely to be obese or develop Type-2 diabetes, possibly due to this process.
Secures Bonding for Baby and Mom
You’ve probably heard about this benefit time and time again: kangaroo care helps you form a beautiful bond with your baby.
During the Sacred or Golden hour, something primal happens. Not only does your body begin to produce oxytocin, but your baby connects with you for the first time. He goes into this state of awareness where he looks deeply into your eyes. You’re the first face that he becomes familiar with and that is a powerful association.
This bond is not only stronger during the newborn phase, but also into toddlerhood as well.
Increase Weight Gain
Kangaroo care has been found as an effective treatment for a preemie’s low weight gain. There are actually a few reasons for this:
- Regulation: When your baby is burning precious calories trying to maintain his body temperature, he’s not conserving those calories for growth.
- Increased Interest in Breastfeeding: As we already discussed, a baby’s sense of smell is heightened. He will be able to smell your milk and naturally grow hungry, increasing the amount of feeds. Not only that, but during skin-to-skin you become much more aware of baby’s needs and will have the ability to offer more milk.
Reduced Risk of Anxiety and Postpartum Depression
We’ve talked a lot about baby, so this skin-to-skin benefit is for mom.
Snuggling up to your baby is literally the cure for a bad day. One study found that moms practicing 6 hours of consistent skin-to-skin during baby’s first week of life and two hours a week over the next month reported fewer postpartum depression symptoms.
That’s because, just like for your baby, skin-to-skin produces increased levels of oxytocin, which lowers the stress hormone, cortisol. Not only that, but parents that practice kangaroo care are often more confident and aware of their baby’s needs, which can make anyone happy.
Supports Brain Development
Preemies that received the benefits of skin-to-skin not only had increased levels of brain development during infancy, but as far as 10 years down the road.
In fact, an Israeli study performed by Bar Ilan University found that infants that received skin-to-skin contact showed better cognitive problem-solving skills. Not only that, but some studies have found that these babies possess more gray brain matter!
Scientists are still trying to discern exactly the cause of this phenomenon, but they believe that the increased circulation, oxygenation, improved sleep, and more positive tactile experiences.
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How to Do Skin-to-Skin
Hopefully by now you’re all fired up to try some skin-to-skin with your baby. Let’s get into how to do it!
Practicing skin-to-skin contact with baby is a natural process and very easy to do, but you will need to prepare beforehand to make sure you’re doing it safely and effectively.
Some parents prefer to use kangaroo care shirts. Basically, these are stretchy shirts with a built in pouch for your baby to lay in. They allow you to be more mobile and/or hold your baby more securely. However, even if you do use a kangaroo care shirt, you’ll want to follow the guidelines and steps listed below.
Ideally, skin-to-skin sessions will last for about an hour. Make sure that you’re fully prepared to sit for that hour. Make sure that you’ve used the bathroom, eaten, and taken care of all other business before you begin. Here are just a couple things to consider:
- Avoid harsh chemicals or perfumes- Babies are particularly sensitive to scents. Plus, part of skin-to-skin involves letting your baby get used to your scent and increasing his appetite for breastmilk. Perfumes or harsh soaps seriously hinder this process.
- Shower- If you’re doing skin-to-skin with a premature baby, shower first and ensure that there are no wounds open on your chest.
- Wear loose-fitting or easily accessible clothing- There should be no barriers between you and baby (except for a diaper).
- Set the mood- Finally, more for your sake than baby’s, set the mood of the room. A calming space will help you relax and truly enjoy the experience.
Undress Baby and Lay Him on Your Bare Chest
If your baby is just arriving, you can obviously skip the undressing part of this step!
Otherwise, undress baby down to his diaper. Rememberm, you can wear clothes as long as they don’t hinder the skin-to-skin contact between you and baby. Any layer of clothing between you and baby will hinder this process.
Once baby is undressed, lay him on your chest or between your breasts. You can put a blanket on baby’s back to keep him warm or use a cap as well.
What to do During Kangaroo Care
Bonding is sweet and all, but sometimes kangaroo care can get a little boring. Just keep in mind that this is relaxation time for you and baby. Try not to engage in any activity that is too stimulating, such as watching tv, playing with your phone, or chatting it up with your visitors. Focus on restful, quiet activities, like reading a book or talking softly to your baby.
Some experts say that it’s okay to fall asleep while doing skin-to-skin, as long as you’re supervised. I would check with your practitioner first to see what she thinks.
Safety tips for Skin-to-Skin
If you think there’s any chance that you’ll fall asleep while practicing skin-to-skin, you should have someone else with you.
If you’re doing skin-to-skin right after giving birth, you’re going to be a little tired. Falling asleep unsupervised can put your baby at risk for falling or getting crushed. Participation with your spouse, family member, or even a nurse in the room with you allows you to safely enjoy skin-to-skin to its fullest without endangering your baby.
Skin-to-skin with baby with a breathing tube will most likely need to professional supervision as well.
Protect Baby’s Airway
The best way to ensure this position is for you to sit in a reclining chair or with some pillows propped behind you. Make sure your baby’s head is turned sideways, flat on your chest, not facing upward or into your skin. If you plan on practicing skin-to-skin, it’s a good idea to check out the AAP guidelines.
The Benefits of Skin-to-Skin Are Still Being Discovered
Harvard recently conducted a meta-study of 124 skin-to-skin studies. They found that there was a 36% decrease in mortality rates and 47% decrease for getting a sepsis infection. These results surpassed varying income levels and different standards of care. The validation for skin-to-skin care is only growing.
As providers in our own country learn about the medical benefits of this practice, kangaroo care is becoming more and more mainstream. Having said that, it’s important that you become your own advocate for skin-to-skin.
Here are just a few ways you can become your own skin-to-skin advocate:
- Speak with your provider now about implementing immediate skin-to-skin contact.
- Request immediate skin-to-skin in your birth plan
- If planning a c-section, speak to your surgeon about a “gentle c-section”.
- Share this article with your partner so you’re both in the loop
Skin-to-Skin reaps Lifelong Benefits
In this post, we’ve looked at the scientific side of skin-to-skin quite a bit. Let’s not forget the emotional aspect. These small moments with your newborn are precious. I hope you’re excited to try skin-to-skin with your little one. It truly is an amazing experience that you’ll treasure for years to come.
In the meantime, if you have any comments or questions about kangaroo care, we’d love to hear from you! Let us know in the comments below.
Thank you for this helpful article! I’m getting more motivated to give kangaroo care to my premie.
I gave birth to my first child when I was 33 week pregnant. I had a pre-gestational diabetes and my placenta couldn’t support her growth, so the doctor said we should save her and get her out immediately. We are grateful for that decision, she got out from the hospital fast, and now we’ve got to give her skin-to-skin contact for at least 12 hours a day. And that includes sleeping hours as we ought to put her down for at most only 2 hours simultaneously.
So, do you happen to know good position to hold a skin-to-skin when sleeping? Can we lay down or do we have to sleep in a half-sitting position only? I hope you can help me figure that out.
Thank you, Erin
Hi Adelia, I’m so sorry for the delayed response. Your comment was flagged in my spam folder :/ Congratulations on your beautiful baby! When laying down, I liked to prop myself up a little with pillows. That way, my baby’s airway was still clear.
As for sleeping, I wouldn’t recommend skin-to-skin while you’re sleeping, unless you have someone in the room watching both of you. I remember reading about parents taking turns with skin-to-skin or using a special kangaroo care wrap (when you’re in the hospital), but everything I’ve heard suggests that holding your baby while the parent is sleeping is too risky. I hope that helps!