Wouldn’t it be nice if there were a magic potion that could cure all breastfeeding problems? Mothers and babies who struggle with latch-on, poor positioning, engorgement, blocked ducts, mastitis, oversupply, low milk supply, stress, irregularities of temperature/breathing/heartbeat at birth, and pain might wish that they could flick a switch or swallow a pill that will make it all better. All of these scenarios often involve seriously hard work for mother and baby to find a resolution. The amazing thing is that there is one simple mother-led intervention that can be a help in all of the above situations: skin-to-skin contact.
Recently my closest childhood friend gave birth to her first child. She lives in California, I’m in Wales. It’s hard for me to be of much help to her. Every week or so I would phone to see how things were going… and things were really hard for them. Sarah was 100% committed to breastfeeding Lara, so she pumped round the clock, fed Lara her expressed breast milk and continued to work on their latch and positioning. The quest to breastfeed consumed Sarah and she could focus on little else. To hear her baby cry and not be able to soothe her at the breast was unbelieveably hard. This week I spoke to her and she beamed, “Lara is exclusively breastfeeding!” Nearly three months later Sarah and Lara are a happy breastfeeding dyad. I asked, “What do you think was the single best thing you did to resolve your problems?” She said, hands down, it was skin-to-skin contact.
So what’s so special about skin-to-skin contact? It appears to be one of those added extras that Baby-Friendly Initiative Hospitals are required to encourage– a box that new mothers must be sure to tick if they are going to do things the natural way. Indeed, straight after birth, skin-to-skin contact has been shown to:
- “stabilise your baby’s heart rate, breathing and temperature
- stabilise your own temperature
- prevent baby blues later on
- reduce your baby’s stress
- reduce your baby’s pain from medical procedures
- reduce your stress
- increase interactions between you and your baby
- increase the likelihood and length of breastfeeding.”
(source: The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding, 8th ed. LLLI)
The benefits for premature babies are even more startling and have had a particularly amazing effect on infant mortality rates in the developing world where the lack of incubators meant that premature babies had very poor prospects indeed (cf. Charpak, Nathalie. Kangaroo Babies: A different way of mothering. Souvenir Press). Medical practitioners there found that when premature babies were held in direct skin-to-skin contact with their parents for as much time as possible, wrapped in a cloth sling or wrap, the outcomes for the babies were even better than if they were kept in an incubator.
Because of these benefits, more and more mothers of full-term infants are demanding to be able to hold their babies straight after birth as well. But I wonder whether, after this point, many are unaware of how valuable skin-to-skin contact continues to be. It’s not just something that we can do with our babies to initiate breastfeeding and welcome them into the world gently, it is often a way to resolve any breastfeeding difficulties that might arise and to develop the bond between mother and baby. It’s worth fitting as much skin-to-skin contact as possible into your life because it’s good for you and for your baby, and a great way to help you meet your breastfeeding goals.
Take the example of Sarah. Her baby was rather small at birth and lacked the strength to latch on and suck effectively at the breast so she expended more calories than she was able to take in. Sarah said that she just spent as much time as possible with Lara lying on her chest in between her breasts, and this made it easy for Sarah to recognise her early feeding cues and help Lara feed as frequently as possible.
It can be frustrating for a mother like Sarah who is expressing and trying to resolve a breastfeeding issue. Some mothers say that they feel they aren’t enjoying their babies, that life is all about feeding. Skin-to-skin contact is one way that mothers in this position can reclaim their babies, enjoy them and help resolve whatever breastfeeding difficulties they might be having, in one fell swoop.
Skin-to-skin contact works as a mother-led intervention because it is simple, it is sympathetic to our mammalian instincts and it keeps mother and baby together. One of my favourite quotations is from Nils Bergman, animal behaviourlist, who said (I paraphrase) that a baby’s natural habitat is its mother’s body. In LLL we say that mothers and babies need to be together early and often in order to establish a full milk supply. Having baby skin-to-skin allows a mother to tap in to her baby’s early feeding cues– put simply, it helps a mother get to know her baby and vice-versa. In terms of science, skin-to-skin contact generates an oxytocin release in the mother and baby– making us feel connected, loving, relaxed and having the effect of lowering blood-pressure and relieving stress. Sometimes the best solutions are the simplest ones. (source: Mohrbacher, N. 2010. Breastfeeding Answers Made Simple. Hale.)
When my third child was born I spent a lot of time lying in bed with him on my chest. I call this worthwhile time-wasting! It’s amazing how much time I could spend simply looking at him and feeling the incredible softness of his skin. He was born at 10pm and I hardly slept a wink all night– I spent our first night drinking him in, memorising every soft fold of skin, every downy hair that covered his tiny body.
These days, my children are older and skin-to-skin contact in this way isn’t really possible! My eldest at nearly nine, likes to have me brush her hair, rub her back, or rock her in a rocking chair on my lap (sshhhh…don’t tell her friends!). My middle child, at 6 years old, stares off into outer space in a catatonic stupor as she enjoys the sensation of my fingers scratching her back. Aidan, at 2, is more ticklish than touchy, but he still loves breastfeeding and his favourite thing to do while nursing is to thread his hand up inside the sleeve of my cardigan so he can feel the skin of my inner arm. Even though touch may not necessarily be a magic potion, it’s definitely magical.
About Lisa Hassan Scott
Lisa Hassan Scott is a stay at home mother of three little ones, age 2, 6 and 9. An American living in Great Britain for over 15 years, Lisa is a Yoga teacher certified by the British Wheel of Yoga, and a La Leche League Leader. She blogs about mothering, breastfeeding, Yoga and the mind at http://www.lisahassanscott.co.uk. Follow her on Twitter: @lisahassanscott