Family Health: Skin-to-skin ‘kangaroo care’ is beneficial for babies, moms

Onesies and sleepers are essential equipment for new babies, but studies show there are important advantages to occasionally leaving the baby clothes in the drawer. Instead, take some time to hold your naked baby next to your skin and just enjoy the closeness. It’s called skin-to-skin care, and it can bring health benefits to both moms and babies.

Holding your unclothed baby next to your bare chest is also called "kangaroo care." It was developed as a way to conserve body heat in preterm infants, in countries where there was a shortage of incubators. Babies who were held this way were much more likely to survive after being born too soon, and continued to do well. Research has since shown that even full-term babies can get remarkable benefits from skin-to-skin care, starting immediately after birth. The close snuggling decreases stress and conserves energy, giving both premature and full-term babies a head start on health.

According to the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, babies who get this care:

  • Have more stable temperatures, heart rates and blood pressure.
  • Breathe at a steadier rate.
  • Sleep better.
  • Start breast-feeding earlier and are more likely to nurse successfully.
  • Have healthier blood sugar levels.
  • Are more likely to receive beneficial bacteria from their mothers. All babies become colonized with bacteria soon after birth. Both breast-feeding and skin-to-skin contact encourage colonization with bacteria from the baby’s own mom, rather than from other caregivers or the environment. Beneficial bacterial help babies’ digestion and may protect against illnesses and allergies.

The benefits of skin-to-skin care don’t stop with the baby. This close contact also promotes increased breast milk in moms, and helps them feel more confident and closer to their babies. That’s especially important with premature births, when the infant may need extra care that can interfere with mother-baby time.

Dads can provide skin-to-skin care, too, and they also benefit from the bonding and confidence it fosters. In fact, babies held skin-to-skin with their moms or dads are calmer and better able to tolerate painful procedures such as heel sticks and injections. The process is simple: place your naked baby against your bare chest and cover his or her back with your shirt or a blanket, making a kangaroo pouch for warmth. It’s OK for the baby to wear a diaper and a hat, but keep the rest bare. Make this a quiet time to just relax and rest, and try to do it four or more times a week, for at least an hour.

You can learn more about skin-to-skin care, by visiting the American Academy of Pediatrics at healthchildren.org.