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

Medically Reviewed by Hansa D. Bhargava, MD on June 30, 2020
3 min read

Instinctively we’ve always known it: There’s 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 baby’s development, influencing brain activity and stress hormones at a critical time.

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

In a recent study, Jones and her team explored a method called kangaroo care, developed in 1978 in Bogotá, Colombia, to help mothers of premature infants keep their babies warm in the absence of incubators. Naked, aside from a diaper, baby is snuggled close to his or her caregiver’s bare chest, head upright, a blanket placed over the body like a kangaroo’s pouch.

Previous research has demonstrated a host of benefits, from helping baby maintain a healthy body temperature and heart rate to lowering risk of infection, as well as bolstering a mother’s milk supply. One Israeli study of 150 preterm infants found that those provided 1 hour of kangaroo care daily for the first 14 days of life slept better and scored higher on cognitive tests as much as a decade later.

Jones’s team sought to find out just what was happening in baby’s brains and bodies to drive those benefits, and whether healthy full-term babies benefited, too. She followed 33 mother-infant pairs, instructing half to practice kangaroo care at least 1 hour per day for 6 weeks. Meanwhile, her team measured levels of oxytocin (often known as the feel-good or cuddle hormone) and cortisol (the stress hormone) in all the infants and moms.

At 3 months, they measured the babies’ brain activity, while awake, using tiny caps embedded with electroencephalogram (EEG) sensors.

“We found that kangaroo care promoted healthy patterns of infant brain activity and appeared to influence mother and infant hormones related to attachment,” says the study’s lead author, Jillian Hardin, PhD, a psychology researcher at FAU.

Those babies who had daily skin-to-skin contact showed higher levels of oxytocin in general. And after a mildly frustrating experience (when mom held their arms down briefly) they showed lower levels of cortisol. Their brains also looked different, with more activity in areas associated with emotion regulation, higher-order thinking, and a curious, outward approach to the world.

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

Moms benefited too, showing higher levels of oxytocin which, some research suggests, could help fend off postpartum depression. Other studies suggest that babies reap similar benefits when dad or another caregiver serves as the “kangaroo.”

Due to the coronavirus, these are difficult times for new mothers, with some experts advising moms who have symptoms of the virus infection to wear a mask when holding baby.

Jones’s advice: “Listen to your doctor, but make sure you get as much skin-to-skin bonding as you can. We may social distance with others, but our babies need us to be close to them.”

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

  • Recline in a chair, shirtless or with no bra on and your shirt open.
  • Don’t lay flat. Rather, lean back at a 30- to 40-degree angle.
  • Place your baby on your chest, facing you, wearing only a diaper (and cap if necessary, for warmth).
  • Don’t allow baby’s head to rest face down against your chest. Turn it to the side.
  • The infant’s shoulders should lay flat against your chest, legs bent in a frog-like position if possible.
  • The infant’s neck should be straight and slightly extended to ensure unobstructed breathing.
  • Place a blanket over baby’s back, or cover it with your shirt.
  • Keep an eye on baby to ensure she is comfortable.
  • Ideally, do this for 60 to 90 minutes several times a week.

Find more articles, browse back issues, and read the current issue of WebMD Magazine.