Skin-to-Skin Contact Lowers NICU Mom Stress

We know skin-to-skin, or kangaroo care, benefits baby—especially preemies—and new research shows it holds benefits for mothers with babies in the NICU, too.

Skin-to-Skin Contact Lowers NICU Mom Stress Khoroshunova Olga/Shutterstock

Who doesn't like to be snuggled? It's already known that "kangaroo care," the practice of holding baby skin-to-skin against your bare chest, helps newborns thrive, especially preemies in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). This close cuddling regulates baby's body temperature, heart rate and breathing, calms crying, and generally makes them feel better. And now, a new study being presented at the American Academy of Pediatrics National Conference and Exhibition shows that babies aren't the only ones to benefit from skin-to-skin—NICU moms' stress levels are reduced, too.

Help in bonding

Researchers looked at the stress levels before and after a one-hour skin-to-skin session between moms and their NICU babies. The infants ranged from 3 to 109 days old, weighed from less than one pound to over 8 pounds at birth, and had a variety of health issues. The study found that the mothers' level of stress—measured by a survey on the NICU environment, baby's status and the perceived mother-baby relationship—decreased after kangaroo care. Although the study didn't specifically answer the question why, lead author Natalia Isaza, M.D., F.A.A.P., of Children's National Health System in Washington, D.C., has some theories. "From my experience as a mother and a neonatologist, my guess is that skin-to-skin contact reduces mothers' stress levels because it gives them an opportunity to play an active role in the care of their babies," she tells Fit Pregnancy. "We know skin-to-skin contact has physiological benefits in the newborns such as stabilization of heart rate and respiratory patterns, so holding their babies skin-to-skin allows mothers to aid in the healing process."

This is especially important in encouraging new moms to bond with their babies, which can be disrupted by the separation, medical interventions and feelings of helplessness that occur when infants are in the NICU. "When mothers can't provide care for their newborns, it can cause them stress because of the complexity of the NICU environment," Dr. Isaza says. "Mothers can feel overwhelmed and even incompetent because they have little control over their babies' care. Allowing mothers to have skin-to-skin contact with their babies for at least an hour allows them to feel like active participants in their babies' care."

A calming effect

The benefits of skin-to-skin occur even without breastfeeding; but if a mom wants to breastfeed or pump milk if the baby is too small to nurse, kangaroo care can help with that, too. "Many moms with newborns in the NICU who planned to breastfeed their babies have trouble producing milk because of their high stress levels," Dr. Isaza says. "Other research has found that skin-to-skin contact actually helps moms produce milk. That research compliments mine, which found that skin-to-skin contact reduces maternal stress levels."

And skin-to-skin is not just for moms—dads can partake, too. "My research focused on mothers, but there's other research out there that shows skin-to-skin contact is beneficial for fathers as well," Dr. Isaza says. "It helps them bond with their babies, feel calmer, and have active roles in the care of their newborns. Generally fathers in the NICU aren't as open as mothers about their emotions, but they're still stressed." The psychological needs of new dads are often overlooked, but skin-to-skin is one way they can feel included and more relaxed.

If you want to do skin-to-skin, especially if your baby is in the NICU, how much do you need in order to receive this stress-lowering effect? "One hour is the minimal amount of time in order to receive full benefits, but the more time spent in skin-to-skin contact, the better the results," Dr. Isaza says. Depending on the medical status of your NICU baby, the amount of time you can hold them might not be more than an hour until they're faring better.

Although more and more NICUs are recognizing the importance of skin-to-skin kangaroo care for mom and baby, you should tell your doctor if you don't feel you're getting enough snuggle time. "Some providers aren't used to promoting skin-to-skin contact between mothers and babies in the NICU," Dr. Isaza says. "If this is not offered to the mother and she feels this is something she wants to try, then the mother should talk to her baby's care team and explain why she feels it could help her stress levels." And even if your baby is not in the NICU, this new mom thing can be stressful, so go ahead and hold your baby close—it will make you, as well as your little one, feel better.