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The Science of Touch: How Skin-to-Skin Contact Benefits Mom's Mental Health

Guest post by Katie McCann, founder of "From Bump To Bubble."


In this illuminating article, we explore the profound impact of skin-to-skin contact on a mother's mental health.



Supported by scientific research, we delve into the transformative effects of this tender touch, initially designed for premature infants.


Key Takeaways

  • Skin-to-skin contact reduces postpartum post-traumatic stress symptoms (PTSS-FC) by reducing birth-related fear and guilt.

  • Skin-to-skin contact is especially beneficial for women who had a caesarean section.

  • Studies show that skin-to-skin contact not only enhances infant health and regulation but also reduces maternal depressive, anxiety, and stress symptoms.

  • By activating the oxytocinergic system and promoting healing, understanding the science behind touch can empower healthcare professionals to provide vital support to mothers during the critical postpartum period.


Short-Term Effects of Skin-To-Skin Contact


Short-term effects of skin-to-skin contact (SSC) between mothers and infants include immediate maternal bonding and reduced infant stress. SSC promotes increased social interaction, stress reduction, and enhances the sensitivity of mother and infant to each other, resulting in positive interactions and engagement.


Additionally, the release of oxytocin during SSC contributes to physiological and anti-stress effects, stabilizing temperature, heart rate, respiration, and reducing crying and pain response in infants.


Immediate Maternal Bonding


Skin-to-skin contact facilitates immediate maternal bonding and enhances the emotional connection between a mother and her newborn infant. This powerful physical contact has several short-term effects that positively impact maternal mental health and emotional well-being.

  • Increased oxytocin release: Skin-to-skin contact stimulates the release of oxytocin, often referred to as the 'love hormone.' This hormone promotes feelings of love, trust, and attachment, enhancing the bond between mother and baby.

  • Reduced stress and anxiety: The physical closeness and warmth of skin-to-skin contact help to calm both the mother and the infant, reducing stress and anxiety levels in both.

  • Enhanced maternal confidence: Skin-to-skin contact boosts a mother's confidence in her ability to care for her newborn. It provides an opportunity for the mother to learn her baby's cues and respond to their needs, fostering a sense of competence and empowerment.

  • Improved maternal-infant communication: Skin-to-skin contact enhances communication between mother and baby. It allows the mother to better understand her infant's needs and cues, promoting a deeper understanding and connection.

These immediate effects of skin-to-skin contact contribute to the overall well-being of the mother and lay a foundation for a strong and nurturing mother-infant relationship.


Infant Stress Reduction


Skin-to-skin contact has been shown to alleviate infant stress in the short-term. This is particularly important as infants are highly responsive to their environment, and stress during the early stages of life can have long-lasting effects on their development.


Skin-to-skin contact promotes the release of oxytocin, a hormone that plays a crucial role in bonding and emotional regulation. It also helps regulate the infant's physiological functions, such as heart rate and temperature, promoting a sense of security and well-being.


Attachment theory emphasizes the importance of secure relationships for healthy infant development, and skin-to-skin contact provides a foundation for this attachment to flourish.


Long-Term Effects on Premature Infants


Research has shown that skin-to-skin contact (SSC) has long-term benefits for premature infants. One important effect is the enhancement of cognitive development in these infants.

SSC also improves mother-infant interaction, promoting more reciprocal and supportive relationships.


These findings highlight the significant impact that SSC can have on the long-term well-being and development of premature infants.


Cognitive Development Benefits


The long-term effects of skin-to-skin contact on premature infants include significant cognitive development benefits.


Research has shown that this early and intimate contact between mother and baby has a profound impact on the cognitive abilities of premature infants.

Here are four key cognitive development benefits of skin-to-skin contact:

  • Improved cognitive functioning: Premature infants who receive skin-to-skin contact have been found to have better cognitive functioning compared to those who do not. This includes improved attention, memory, and problem-solving skills.

  • Enhanced language development: Skin-to-skin contact promotes language development in premature infants. The close physical contact and interaction with the mother's voice stimulate the baby's auditory processing and language learning abilities.

  • Increased IQ: Studies have shown that premature infants who experience skin-to-skin contact have higher IQ scores later in life compared to those who do not. This suggests that the early sensory experiences provided by skin-to-skin contact contribute to long-term cognitive development.

  • Better academic performance: The cognitive benefits of skin-to-skin contact in premature infants have been linked to improved academic performance in later years. These infants are more likely to excel in areas such as reading, writing, and problem-solving.

These findings highlight the importance of skin-to-skin contact for the cognitive development of premature infants and emphasize the significance of early bonding and sensory experiences in shaping their future cognitive abilities.


Mother-Infant Interaction Enhancement


Promoting the long-term enhancement of mother-infant interaction in premature infants is a crucial aspect of understanding the benefits of skin-to-skin contact. Research has shown that skin-to-skin contact (SSC) in premature infants leads to better cognitive development and autonomic nervous system functioning.


Additionally, mother-child interactions in the SSC group are more reciprocal and supportive, improving social functioning and maternal sensitivity in premature infants. Early interventions, including SSC, have long-term physical and cognitive benefits for preterm infants.


These findings highlight the importance of promoting and encouraging skin-to-skin contact between mothers and their premature infants. By enhancing the mother-infant interaction, we can positively impact the long-term development and well-being of these vulnerable infants.


Long-Term Effects on Full-Term Infants


The long-term effects of skin-to-skin contact (SSC) on full-term infants are significant and beneficial.


Emotional Bonding Benefits


Long-term effects on full-term infants demonstrate the lasting benefits of emotional bonding through skin-to-skin contact. Here are some key benefits of emotional bonding through skin-to-skin contact for full-term infants:

  • Enhanced mother-child interactions: Skin-to-skin contact promotes positive interactions and engagement between mothers and infants, leading to more reciprocal and supportive interactions in the long-term.

  • Improved social functioning: Full-term infants who experience skin-to-skin contact in infancy have been found to exhibit higher levels of social functioning later in childhood.

  • Increased maternal sensitivity: Skin-to-skin contact influences maternal sensitive guidance, which plays a crucial role in children's cooperation, exploration, and willingness to talk about past emotional events.

  • Enhanced emotional communication: Skin-to-skin contact encourages dyads to have more open discussions and reciprocal exchanges about emotional events, facilitating emotional communication between mothers and infants.

These long-term effects highlight the importance of emotional bonding through skin-to-skin contact in promoting healthy mother-infant relationships and supporting the emotional development of full-term infants.


Cognitive Development Enhancement


Skin-to-skin contact during infancy has been found to have lasting effects on the cognitive development of full-term infants. Numerous studies have demonstrated the positive impact of this contact on infants' cognitive abilities, such as attention, memory, and problem-solving skills.


The close physical contact and nurturing environment provided by skin-to-skin contact create a secure and responsive bond between the infant and the caregiver, promoting optimal brain development.


Additionally, the release of oxytocin during skin-to-skin contact enhances the infant's ability to regulate stress and promotes positive social interactions, which further contribute to cognitive development.


These long-term effects highlight the importance of incorporating skin-to-skin contact into the care of full-term infants, as it not only enhances their cognitive development but also establishes a strong foundation for their overall well-being.


Role of Oxytocin in Skin-To-Skin Contact


Oxytocin plays a crucial role in facilitating the physiological and anti-stress effects of skin-to-skin contact (SSC), promoting positive social interaction and stress reduction for both mother and baby. Oxytocin, often referred to as the "love hormone," is released during SSC and breastfeeding, enhancing the bond between mother and infant. It is known to reduce stress and induce calmness, which can have a profound impact on the overall well-being of both parties involved.


To further understand the importance of oxytocin in SSC, let's take a look at the following table:


Effects of Oxytocin in Skin-to-Skin Contact

  • Promotes bonding and attachment

  • Reduces stress and anxiety

  • Enhances positive social interaction

  • Facilitates physiological responses

As the table illustrates, oxytocin plays a multifaceted role in SSC, influencing various aspects of the mother-infant relationship. By promoting bonding and attachment, reducing stress and anxiety, enhancing positive social interaction, and facilitating physiological responses, oxytocin helps create a nurturing and supportive environment for both mother and baby during skin-to-skin contact.


Breastfeeding: A Natural Extension of Skin-to-Skin Contact


Breastfeeding is not just a means of providing nutrition to a newborn; it's a continuation of the intimate bond formed through skin-to-skin contact. The act of breastfeeding offers numerous benefits, both for the infant and the mother, and plays a pivotal role in enhancing maternal mental health.



The Emotional Benefits of Breastfeeding


Breastfeeding is a deeply emotional experience that strengthens the bond between mother and child. The closeness and eye contact during feeding sessions foster feelings of love, trust, and security. For the mother, the act of breastfeeding can be a source of pride and fulfillment, knowing she's providing essential nutrients for her baby's growth and development.


Physical Health and Recovery


Breastfeeding has tangible health benefits. For the baby, breast milk provides all the necessary nutrients in the right proportions and offers protection against many illnesses. For the mother, breastfeeding can help burn extra calories, aiding postpartum weight loss. It also triggers the release of oxytocin, which can help the uterus return to its pre-pregnancy size and reduce post-delivery bleeding.


Supporting Mental Well-being


Breastfeeding can be a source of comfort for both mother and baby. The act itself, combined with the hormones released during feeding, can help reduce stress and anxiety. Mothers who breastfeed often report feelings of relaxation and emotional bonding during feeding sessions. Moreover, the consistent routine and the act of nurturing can provide a sense of purpose and structure in the often chaotic early days of motherhood.


Skin-to-Skin and Its Positive Impact on Pumping


For mothers who choose or need to pump breast milk, skin-to-skin contact can be a valuable practice to enhance milk expression. The close physical contact with the baby before or during pumping sessions can stimulate the release of prolactin, a hormone responsible for milk production. This not only helps increase the volume of milk expressed but can also make the pumping experience more comfortable and efficient.


Furthermore, the emotional connection fostered by skin-to-skin contact can help reduce feelings of stress or anxiety that some mothers may experience while pumping. Being relaxed and emotionally connected to the baby can facilitate a more effective let-down reflex, ensuring that mothers can express milk more easily and in larger quantities.


For mothers who are separated from their infants due to various reasons, such as premature birth or medical complications, practicing skin-to-skin when possible can be especially beneficial. It can serve as a bridge, maintaining the mother's connection to her baby and supporting her breastfeeding journey, even when direct breastfeeding isn't feasible.


In Closing: The Power of Touch and Connection


The journey of motherhood is filled with countless moments of love, challenges, and profound connections. The science of touch, particularly skin-to-skin contact and its natural extension, breastfeeding, underscores the incredible power of human connection.


These intimate interactions not only lay the foundation for a strong bond between mother and child but also play a pivotal role in supporting maternal mental health.

As we've explored, the benefits extend beyond the immediate moments of contact, influencing long-term cognitive, emotional, and physical well-being for both mother and baby. Embracing these practices and understanding their profound impact can guide new mothers and healthcare professionals alike, ensuring that the postpartum period is marked by support, healing, and deepened bonds.

In the vast landscape of motherhood, it's heartening to know that something as simple as touch can have such a transformative impact.


Frequently Asked Questions


How Does Skin-To-Skin Contact Impact the Mental Health of Mothers?


Skin-to-skin contact (SSC) has positive effects on maternal mental health, reducing symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress. Limited studies on full-term infants show decreased anxiety symptoms postpartum. SSC activates the oxytocinergic system, improving maternal well-being.


What Are the Prevalence Rates of Maternal Mental Health Symptoms During the Postpartum Period?


During the postpartum period, prevalence rates of maternal mental health symptoms include 17-19% experiencing depressive symptoms, 6-15% experiencing anxiety symptoms, and 5-38% experiencing stress symptoms. These symptoms are associated with suboptimal child development.


What Are the Common Postpartum Healing and Delivery-Related Symptoms Experienced by Mothers?


Common postpartum healing and delivery-related symptoms experienced by mothers include elevated fatigue (40-60%), delivery-related pain (up to 72%), and delivery-related post-traumatic stress symptoms (up to 30%). Inexpensive and accessible interventions are needed to support women during this period.


What Are the Potential Benefits of Daily Mother-Infant Skin-To-Skin Contact During the Postnatal Period?


Potential benefits of daily mother-infant skin-to-skin contact during the postnatal period include reduced maternal depressive symptoms, stability of anxiety symptoms, decreased fatigue, improved healing, and activation of the oxytocinergic system, promoting positive maternal mental health.


What Does the Research Say About the Effects of Daily Mother-Infant Skin-To-Skin Contact on Maternal Mental Health and Postpartum Healing?


Daily mother-infant skin-to-skin contact has been associated with reduced maternal depressive, anxiety, and stress symptoms, as well as improved postpartum healing. This evidence suggests that skin-to-skin contact may have significant benefits for maternal mental health and well-being.


More about Katie:


Katie McCann, founder of "From Bump To Bubble," offers a wealth of resources for parents transitioning from pregnancy to parenthood. With a BSc in Psychology, breastfeeding counselor certification, and experience as a former HCPC paramedic, Katie combines scientific insight with real-life parenting wisdom. As a mother of two, she shares practical tips and emergency care insights. Whether it's breastfeeding guidance, parenting tips, or mompreneurship insights, Katie is a trusted voice in the parenting realm.


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