Almost all new parents want nothing more than to cuddle their newborns. Brand new babes have the softest skin, the sweetest smelling hair, and all they do is lie on you and breathe their delicate breaths (a far cry from the toddler years when all they do is jump on you!). It’s divine, for sure, and if my children could stay that small forever, I would leap at the chance to have 50 more babies.
But did you know that there are real health benefits to holding your newborn against you, especially skin-to-skin? Tons of research has proven the benefits of holding your naked baby (well, almost naked — don’t forget the diaper!) against your skin. Skin-to-skin, especially in the first few hours after birth, increases the likelihood of successful breastfeeding, and has even been shown to reduce pain in infants.
But now, we know even more: A new study published in Pediatrics has found that skin-to-skin contact has longterm health benefits, especially when it comes to health and intelligence.
The study was a follow-up to one conducted 20 years ago, in which researchers looked at the positive effects skin-to-skin (often called Kangaroo Mother Care) had on premature infants. This new study found that preterm and low weight infants showed better neurodevelopment, higher breastfeeding rates, and even improved mother-infant bonding.
Researchers tracked 716 of these Kangaroo Mother Care (KMC) participants and compared them to a control group of people who hadn’t received the care. In the end, adults who received KMC as newborns had higher IQ’s than those who didn’t. The KMC babies also had significantly larger areas of gray brain matter and increased maturation in the cerebral cortex. Socially, these children showed reduced hyperactivity and aggression, lower absences at school, and even higher hourly wages as adults.
Of course, not all babies get the opportunity to experience skin-to-skin time with their parents, especially in those first few hours after birth. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that your children will turn out any less brilliant or well adjusted.
Like any study, it’s important to take these findings with a grain of salt. Remember that researchers were studying premature babies only, so it may not make sense to compare your own baby to those in the study. It’s also hard to measure the effects of one baby-care practice and how it might affect a child long-term, especially when so much happens in life beyond those first few hours or months.
In an analysis of the study, also published by Pediatrics, Lydia Furman pointed out some of these discrepancies:
“[I]t is difficult to quantify and qualify parent-associated and parent-delivered interventions because all parents are different,” wrote Furman. “[W]e are a full 20 years out, and ‘life has happened,’ so numerous potentially unmeasured contributions to each individual child’s life (and outcomes) have occurred.”
Regardless of the many nuances of the research, I think most parents agree that snuggling with infants is just a feel-good thing to do; one that we should all get on board with whenever possible — and not just for preemies in the NICU. As the study researchers noted: “We firmly believe that this is a powerful, efficient, scientifically based health intervention that can be used in all settings.”
Based on my own experience, and from chatting with other new moms over the years, it certainly does seem that some hospitals make it easier to have uninterrupted skin-to-skin contact with newborns than others. It would be awesome if all hospitals made this a viable option for moms and babies — and maybe studies like this new one will give the argument for skin-to-skin care the extra boost it needs.