I brought my nephew to the zoo the other day, and as I wandered through the section that housed the new baby animals with their mothers, it got me to thinking about how differently most mother mammals interact with their newborns than human mothers. We had the incredible privilege of watching as a calf was born, and its mother tenderly licked and nudged it until it was ready to start walking around on its shaky little legs. Not once did the mother leave the baby’s side and seemed to be touching it as much as possible. Compare this to how many human mothers react to the births of their babies. Most will cuddle their newborns for a few moments, but then the baby is whisked away to a nursery where someone else will bathe and dress him and tuck him into a bassinet so the mother can rest. This seems like a rather disconnected way to introduce a new baby into the world.  Does it have any real negative impact? Are babies that stay with their mothers any healthier?

Many hospitals are moving away from the automatic separation of mother and baby after birth. Instead, they are encouraging mothers to participate in approach referred to as “Kangaroo Care.” In this method of care, the baby is not separated from its mother after birth except for essential procedures such as immunizations. The mother spends as much time as possible engaged in skin-to-skin contact with the baby, much like a mother kangaroo keeping her newborn joey tucked safely in her pouch. Studies have indicated this type of care has incredible benefits for both mother and baby, but particularly for the newborn.

Extensive evaluations of newborns have shown babies who have consistent skin-to-skin contact with their mothers in the hours after birth sleep longer and more soundly, have better adapted regulatory responses, and have more regular breathing. Babies being held by their mothers are also less likely to succumb to near-death experiences that may go unnoticed in a seemingly healthy baby who has been moved to the nursery while his mother rests.

It stands to reason that extended periods of skin-to-skin contact would help newborns ease into their new lives on the outside. They are already accustomed to the beating of their mother’s heart and experts theorize a stronger sense of smell allows newborns to attach to the scent of their mother and feel comforted by it. These results have been shown to be even more dramatic in premature babies.

Source: Ferber, Sari Goldstein, PhD. Pediatrics Vol. 113 No. 4 April 1, 2004
pp. 858 -865

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