Early Skin-to-Skin Contact Helps Baby’s Brain

Instinctively, we’ve always known that there is something special about a mother’s touch.

Research suggests that skin-to-skin contact in the first few months of life can play a key role in a baby’s development, influencing brain activity and stress hormones at a critical time.

“Our brains are not fully developed when we are born, especially the regions that make us uniquely human, such as those associated with planning and controlling emotions,” says Nancy Jones, PhD, associate professor in the Florida Department of Psychology. Atlantic University (FAU). “These first interactive experiences are really important.”

In a recent study, Jones and his team explored a method called kangaroo care, developed in 1978 in Bogotá, Colombia, to help mothers of premature babies keep their babies warm in the absence of incubators. Naked, apart from a diaper, the baby is snuggled up against the bare chest of his caregiver, head erect, a blanket placed over his body like a kangaroo pocket.

Previous research has shown a host of benefits, ranging from helping babies maintain a healthy body temperature and heart rate, to reducing the risk of infection, as well as increasing the production of breast milk from a baby. mother. An Israeli study of 150 premature infants found that those who received 1 hour of kangaroo care per day for the first 14 days of life slept better and performed better on cognitive tests for up to ten years.

Jones’ team set out to find out what was going on in the baby’s brain and body to reap these benefits, and whether healthy term babies benefited from them as well. She followed 33 mother-child pairs, requiring half of them to practice kangaroo care for at least 1 hour a day for 6 weeks. Meanwhile, her team measured the levels of oxytocin (often called the feel-good or hug hormone) and cortisol (the stress hormone) in all infants and moms.

At 3 months, they measured the babies’ brain activity, while they were awake, using tiny plugs built into electroencephalogram (EEG) sensors.

“We found that kangaroo care promoted healthy brain activity patterns in infants and appeared to influence attachment-related maternal and infant hormones,” said study lead author Jillian Hardin, PhD, researcher in psychology at FAU.


Babies who had daily skin-to-skin contact showed higher levels of oxytocin in general. And after a slightly frustrating experience (when mom briefly lowered her arms), they showed lower cortisol levels. Their brains also looked different, with more activity in areas associated with regulating emotions, higher-order thinking, and a curious, outward-looking approach to the world.

“Even 6 weeks of kangaroo care seemed to influence their brain development,” Jones says.

Moms have also benefited, showing higher levels of oxytocin which some research has found may help ward off postpartum depression. Other studies suggest that babies reap similar benefits when daddy or another caregiver acts as a “kangaroo”.

These are difficult times for new mothers due to the coronavirus, with some experts advising moms who show symptoms of viral infection to wear a mask when holding baby.

Jones’ tip: “Listen to your doctor, but make sure you have as much skin-to-skin connection as possible. We can have social distances from others, but our babies need us to be close to them.

Practical advice

You can practice kangaroo care at home, Hardin says. Some companies sell kangaroo style wraps that allow parents to keep their hands free and to walk around while carrying their babies. If your baby was premature or you have respiratory symptoms, see your doctor first.

  • Lie on a chair, shirtless or without a bra, and your shirt open.
  • Don’t stay flat. Instead, lean back at a 30 to 40 degree angle.
  • Place your baby on your chest, facing you, wearing only one diaper (and a cap if necessary, to warm him).
  • Don’t let baby’s head rest face down on your chest. Turn it on its side.
  • The child’s shoulders should rest flat against your chest with the legs bent in a frog-like position if possible.
  • The infant’s neck should be straight and slightly elongated to ensure unobstructed breathing.
  • Place a blanket on baby’s back or cover it with your shirt.
  • Keep an eye on baby to make sure he is comfortable.
  • Ideally, do this for 60 to 90 minutes several times a week.

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Nancy Jones, PhD, associate professor, Department of Psychology, Florida Atlantic University, Boca Raton, FL.

Journal of Infant Mental Health: “Effects of maternal kangaroo care on maternal mood and interaction patterns between parents and their preterm and low birth weight infants: a systematic review.”

Biological psychiatry: “Skin-to-skin contact between mother and premature baby improves the physiological organization and cognitive control of the child during the first 10 years of life.”

Infant Behavior and Development: “Parent training in kangaroo care has an impact on infant neurophysiological development and mother-child neuroendocrine activity.”

Jillian Hardin, PhD, Assistant Instructor and Psychology Researcher, Florida Atlantic University, Boca Raton, FL.

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