While every mother has an unbreakable bond with her child, some parent-child relationships are stronger than others. And, as it turns out, 2 in 5 children grow up lacking secure attachment to their parents, according to a recent review of more than 100 studies and 14,000 children. These children are more likely to do poorly in school and suffer from depression than children who are securely attached to their parents.
The easiest way to form a secure attachment from the get-go? Hold your newborn skin-to-skin, advises Susan M. Ludington, R.N., Ph.D., executive director of the United States Institute for Kangaroo Care. "Infancy sets up your interactions with your baby for the rest of her life," she says.
Bonus: Skin-to-skin contact does a lot more than promote bonding. Check out these nine benefits of kangaroo care.
It Helps Baby Adapt
"Thermal regulation is a very common problem with infants, especially preterm babies," says Malika D. Shah, M.D., assistant professor of pediatrics and neonatology at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. After all, when your baby was in the womb, she didn't need to regulate her own temperature. Since your skin is the same temperature as the womb, Baby will find it easier to adapt to her post-birth environment.
It Boosts Baby's Mental Development
Preemies who received kangaroo care had better brain functioning at 15 years old—comparable to that of adolescents born at term—than those who had been placed in incubators, says a Canadian study. By stabilizing heart rate, oxygenation, and improving sleep, the brain is better able to develop, Ludington says.
It Promotes Healthy Weight
One Cochrane Library review concluded that skin-to-skin contact dramatically increases newborn weight gain. "When babies are warm, they don't need to use their energy to regulate their body temperature," Ludington says. "They can use that energy to grow instead." Plus, kangarooed babies enjoy increased breastfeeding rates, which can't hurt healthy weight gain. But more on that next...
It Makes Breastfeeding Easier
"Newborns instinctively have a heightened sense of smell, so placing your baby skin-to-skin helps her seek out the nipple and begin breastfeeding," says Katie Dunning, R.N., clinical coordinator of labor and delivery at Mount Sinai Hospital. In fact, moms who practiced kangaroo care were more likely to breastfeed exclusively and, on average, these moms breastfed three months longer than those who didn't practice skin-to-skin care, says one study published in Neonatal Network.
Related: The Ultimate Guide to Breastfeeding
It Helps You Make Milk
When mom and baby are together, hormones that regulate lactation balance out, helping you produce more milk, Dr. Shah says.
It Reduces Baby's Stress and Pain
Just 10 minutes of skin-to-skin contact reduces babies' levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and increases levels of the "cuddle hormone" oxytocin, which stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system to make babies feel calm and safe, says Ludington. Her research, published in AACN Clinical Issues, shows that when preterm infants are held chest-to-chest, they react less to heel sticks, a minimally invasive way to draw blood, and a common source of pain among preemies.
It Helps Baby Sleep
Less stress = better sleep. Preemies who were cradled skin-to-skin slept more deeply and woke up less often than those who slept in incubators, reported the journal Pediatrics.
It Promotes Bonding with Dad
"From their time in the womb, babies recognize their fathers' voice," says kangaroo care researcher Gene Cranston Anderson, Ph.D., R.N., professor emeritus of nursing at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. "Babies find skin-to-skin contact with dad calming, and it helps them bond."
It Prevents Postpartum Depression
Various studies show that kangaroo care reduces postpartum depression. According to MCN: The American Journal of Maternal/Child Nursing, activity in the mother's adrenal axis is negatively influenced by childbirth, and skin-to-skin contact may reactivate the pathways to minimize the risk of depression. Plus, oxytocin released from skin-to-skin care decreases maternal anxiety and promotes attachment, further reducing the risk, says Dunning.
How to Get the Benefits
When it comes to kangaroo care, more is better, but according to Ludington, the first two hours after birth are the most important, in terms of easing baby into the world.
After that, continued skin-to-skin contact can still be beneficial, especially for preemies that have low birth weights and are unable to regulate their own temperature. Consider it an alternative to an incubator, says Dr. Shah, who recommends preemies get frequent kangaroo care for the first 20-plus weeks of life. "Do it as long as both baby and parents enjoy it," she says. When your baby starts fussing and trying to get off of your chest, it's a good sign it's time to let her do her own thing.
Related: Snuggle Up to Your Baby