Midwife & Breastfeeding Consultant

A mother touch - The Power of Skin to Skin contact

Posted on April 4, 2012

Imagine you are on a long and challenging journey, it is stressful, painful and although necessary to undertake it is also completely out of your control.

Then when it is over and you finally arrive at your destination you discover that you are now in a vastly different place compared to the world you had known previously; the sounds are different and it smells, looks and feels different.  You feel vulnerable and scared and overwhelmed. Then when it all seems too much to cope with you feel a comforting touch, a caress, a hug, “you are going to be ok” the touch seems to say, “I am here, I will care for you and I will protect you, don’t be scared” and as your fears melt away you feel safe knowing that you are where you are supposed to be – in the arms of your mother. 

The journey of labour and birth is more than a physical experience for the baby it is also an emotional experience.  Scientists and psychologists have determined that by the end of the third trimester a foetus has the full range of human emotions.  So just like us babies can feel pain, pleasure, joy, happiness, bliss, fear, anger, frustration in response to what is happening to them.  And even though the baby doesn’t consciously remember these experiences they are stored in the brain and inform him about his new world.

To fully comprehend what an enormous event the transition from the womb to the world is for a baby it helps to understand about how the foetus experiences the womb.  The environment in the uterus is a warm, dark place, with the constant sound of the mothers beating heart, the foetus never experiences hunger as the placenta is continuously providing nourishment.  The foetus never experiences cold as he is floating in the warm amniotic fluid with the walls of the uterus giving constant support and when the mother moves the foetus is rocked and swayed.  In short, life in the womb is quiet, calm, peaceful, stress free and pain free.  Then labour begins...

 During labour and birth uterine contractions push the foetus down onto the cervix as he twists and turns through the pelvis.  The skull takes most of the pressure with the bones of the skull overlapping in order to fit through the pelvis.  Researchers have shown that babies find birth stressful by measuring their stress hormones immediately after birth.  They also believe babies find birth painful because there are high levels of endorphins (a pain relieving hormone) in breast milk in the first few days after birth.

At the moment of birth the baby emerges out into a totally different world to the one experienced in the uterus. This new world assaults all his senses with bright light, loud unusual noises, a myriad of smells and it feels completely different as there is no amniotic fluid surrounding him.  All these new sensations are quite overwhelming to the newly born baby. Fortunately there is a wonderful way to help your baby cope and manage this huge transition – skin to skin contact.

Skin to skin contact means immediately after the birth placing the baby on the mother’s abdomen or chest the front of his body is lying right next to his mother’s skin. With his ear against mum’s chest wall baby can hear the familiar sound of her heartbeat, he can also clearly hear mothers voice which he has been listening since 20 weeks gestation and this will comfort the baby.  Also he can smell the amniotic fluid on his hands, amniotic fluid is a pheromone which means it has a smell and taste.  These pheromones are specific to each mother and her breast milk, the baby has been swallowing amniotic fluid during the pregnancy so is very familiar with the taste and smell the amniotic fluid and this helps to assure the baby that he is in the right place.

But most importantly with his skin directly against his mothers skin baby can FEEL mother. The baby’s skin and his sense of touch is the most acute and accurate way of him understanding about this new world he has arrived in.  The FEEL of his skin against his mothers skin is immensely reassuring to the baby, this touch helps the baby know that he is safe both physically and emotionally.  When a baby feels safe emotionally then he is able to cope with the transition to this new and unusual world. Research has shown that with immediate skin to skin contact the newborn’s heart rate stabilizes, the breathing stabilizes, the glucose metabolism stabilizes and temperature regulation stabilizes and this demonstrates that the baby is recovering from the birth process.

For the mother who has perhaps had a long arduous labour or had a caesarean section skin to skin contact helps her bond and connect with her baby. With the wonderful mothering hormones, oxytocin, beta-endorphin and prolactin circulating in her system the mother is compelled to touch and caress her baby which in turn comforts the baby.

Usually after twenty to forty minutes of continuous and uninterrupted skin to skin contact a newborn baby will start showing pre-feeding behaviours.  These are the first signs that the baby has recovered from the birth and is now ready for the next big thing in his life – food!  The baby will start massaging the breast and licking his lips and opening his mouth in a wide gape and then start bobbing his head about trying to locate the breast.  Babies have an extremely acute sense of smell and locate the breast by following the smell of the colostrom which has the same smell as the amniotic fluid.  A newborn baby whose mother received no medications in labour is quite capable of crawling to the breast and latching on unaided .

It is a myth that babies need to be taught how to breastfeed.  Breastfeeding is innate in all babies; they instinctively know how to do it, as do all mammals. However, in order for the baby to be able to follow his instincts he needs to be in a calm and relaxed state and this can only be achieved  by providing skin to skin immediately after the birth.

Skin to skin contact is an essential part of the birth process, it helps the baby recover from the birth, it helps the mother bond with her baby and it is the foundation to a successful breastfeeding experience.  Even though it can be difficult for us adults to accept that babies will experience stress and pain during labour and birth it is empowering to know that using skin to skin contact - the power of our touch - is all it takes to help our babies feel safe, secure and help them thrive.

For more information on skin to skin go to