The Importance of Skin-to-Skin Contact

Commonly, after the birth of a newborn, the infant is put on her mother’s chest, called skin-to-skin, or kangaroo care. The baby is naked except for a  diaper, and put tummy down on the mother’s bare chest,  with the baby’s  head  turned to the side, neck straight and nose and mouth uncovered  A blanket covers the two of them.

This practice became very important in Brazil in the 1970s, when they had a very high rate of death of premature infants. However, the medical staff noticed infants who  were held by parents much of the day fared much better than their peers. It was the Brazilians who coined the phrase kangaroo care.

The practice has now become a common recommendation, for all babies, preterm or fullterm.

So how does it  benefit the babies?

Researchers have found that skin-to-skin contact:

  • normalizes the baby’s body temperature (in fact the mother’s temp rises to warm a cold baby and drops to cool an overwarm baby)
  • stabilizes the infant’s respiration and oxygenation
  • increases glucose levels, thus reducing the risk of hypoglycemia
  • regulates blood pressure
  • reduces stress hormones in mother and baby
  • decreases crying
  • encourages the baby into a quiet-alert state, which is optimal for successful feeding

And, for those of you who are breastfeeding, skin-to-skin contact has been shown to stimulate milk production in the  early days.  How?

Last post introduced the topic of the hormone oxytocin and the maternal

instinct (albeit the subject was worms but the same link between oxytocin and the maternal instinct exists in humans).

Oxytocin is also the hormone that stimulates milk let-down.  The baby sucking releases prolactin,  the hormone that regulates milk production. So skin-to-skin increases the release of oxytocin, the “love hormone”, both of which decrease stress, which encourages babies quiet-alert state,  which improves baby’s ability to breastfeed, which encourages the release of prolactin, which increases the mother’s milk supply.

Skin-to-skin contact with infants and fathers also produces many of the same benefits.

Just remember, whoever is holding the baby, skin-to-skin should be awake and make sure the baby’s head is turned to the side, with  the neck straight and nose and mouth uncovered.

Maternal Instinct and the Simple Worm

Caenorhabditis elegans
Photo by Society of Mucosal Immunology

Whoever thought research on worms could produce heart-warming news on the maternal instinct?

The maternal instinct is known to be a powerful force. Simply put, it is the desire in mothers to perpetuate their offsprings’ survival, sometimes even at a detriment to herself. It is driven by hormones, namely oxytocin, sometimes affectionately called the “love” hormone. Skin-to-skin contact is known to increase amounts of oxytocin in both mothers and children. The rise in oxytocin also has been proven to reduce anxiety.

So what does this have to do with worms? Are worms driven by anything but their own need to survive?

Yes, it turns out. Scientists in England have discovered, in the course of researching the simple worm, C.elegans, that the worms work to help their offspring to survive, even at their own sacrifice.

The worms feed on a bacteria, the same bacteria they lay their offspring in. Thus they are competing for the same food source as their offspring.

The researchers from England’s University of Southampton, working with the National Infection Service at Porton Down and KU Leuven in Belgium, discovered the worms recognize their offspring and develop a “food-leaving” strategy, designed to ensure the offspring get enough to eat.

The scientists made a connection between this behavior and the hormone nematocin, which is an ancient version of oxytocin. So, according to the researchers, our maternal instinct was derived from “the ancient organization of simple nervous systems such as those found in worms.”

Cool, right?

More to come on oxytocin next week…