It’s a marvellous quirk of nature that holding your baby not only feels wonderful, but has lots of delightful benefits – and not just for your baby. Every time you cradle your baby in your arms or gently stroke his tiny feet, you instinctively feel an emotional connection. Skin-to-skin contact with your baby can boost his immune system, improve growth, develop the bond between you and reduce breastfeeding problems and stress.
“Skin-to-skin contact simply means cuddling or stroking your baby’s naked skin, with no clothes, blankets or anything else between you,” explains Claire Nonini of baby massage school OneTouch.
“Skin-to-skin contact is especially beneficial, as it heightens sensitivity to touch for parent and child, encouraging the release of endorphins – the feel-good hormones – and oxytocin, the hormone responsible for bonding,” says Claire.
“This is why midwives, when possible, put a naked baby straight on to mum’s chest as soon as the child is born,” says Frances Fewell, complementary therapy adviser to Anglia Ruskin University. “It calms the baby and helps mum and child to bond. After the trauma of birth, a baby needs to feel a physical connection with his mum.”
Skin-to-skin contact between babies and new dads
It seems it’s not just skin-to-skin contact between mum and baby that’s so beneficial. Research at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden showed that babies born by caesarean who had skin-to-skin contact with their dads stopped crying within 15 minutes and became drowsy in an hour, nearly half the time it took for babies left in cots on their own.
“Skin-to-skin contact definitely helped me to bond with my little girl,” says Dennis, 24, and dad to Alicia, now 4. “Our midwife gave us some information on skin-to-skin contact just after Alicia was born,” he explains. “She also showed me how to do baby massage, and Alicia loved it.”
Touch and its role in your baby’s development
Studies confirm that in the days, weeks, months and even years after the birth, touch remains a vital part of both your and your baby’s development.
Research by Theodore Wachs, a psychologist at Purdue University in Indiana, US, showed that babies who experienced greater skin-to-skin contact enjoyed an added advantage in their mental development during the first six months of their lives.
Longer-term studies at the University of California medical school in San Francisco showed that children aged 7 to 10 years who’d experienced more skin-to-skin contact with their parents as infants, either through cuddles or baby massage, had more positive feelings about themselves.
“In that time before babies can verbalise or even comprehend much about their world, touch is a way of communicating emotion,” says Claire Nonini. “You learn instinctively to understand and read your baby’s needs.”
Using baby massage
The benefits of cuddling and touching can be made even greater with baby massage, using special techniques designed to be therapeutic and not harmful to a baby.
“The slow, firm strokes of baby massage are great for releasing oxytocin, the hormone responsible for helping us to bond with each other,” explains Claire.
This means baby massage can sometimes be a great help for mums suffering from postnatal depression and struggling to bond. It may also improve circulation, develop muscle tone and help colic and constipation in babies.
“I’ve found that some techniques are wonderful at easing colic,” agrees Julia, 38, mum to 13-month-old Rosie. “Rosie slept much better once I started baby massage classes when she was about 6 or 7 weeks old.”
“One of the most important things about baby massage is to take cues from your little one,” explains Susan Patterson Smith, a baby massage therapist from home massage service Return to Glory. “You need to ‘ask permission’ from your baby. If he hunches his shoulders or pulls away, don’t proceed with massage at that time.”
Also, don’t massage him when he’s asleep, although this technique can form part of a relaxing bedtime or bathtime routine. Ensure the room is warm and quiet. “Don’t play music,” advises Susan. “It’s your voice that’s most important while you’re doing a massage.”
For your baby to feel safe and secure, he needs to be able to see you while you’re massaging him. Your baby’s eyesight isn’t fully developed, so you’ll need to be reasonably close to him.
“Be especially careful if he’s ill or has a skin or heart condition,” says Susan. “In these cases, it’s best to seek medical and professional advice before massaging your baby.”
You may want to start massage within a few weeks of your baby’s birth, or you may think it’s better to leave it until he’s a few months old – the benefits remain. Just five minutes a day can leave you both feeling calmer, happier and much closer.
See our step-by-step guide to six key baby massage techniques.
What is kangaroo care?
Special skin-to-skin cuddles can be particularly beneficial to premature babies. “Kangaroo care, where parents hold their naked baby on their bare chest, helps a premature baby regulate his temperature, breathing and heart rate,” says Lisa Barnwell, massage therapist, of Me and My Baby Clinic.
“Kangaroo care recreates an environment similar to the womb, where the mum’s body temperature keeps the baby’s stable and he can hear his mother’s heartbeat and voice and feel physically connected. It can increase bonding that might otherwise be missing with long-term neonatal care.”
Studies reveal kangaroo care improves chances of survival, growth and immune response, as well as brain development.
For more info on kangaroo care, check out premature baby charity BLISS.