For newborns who do not require emergency interventions directly after birth, the best place to be is on their mother's chest, skin to skin. This kind of contact is believed to help regulate the newborn's temperature and breathing rate. Now, new research suggests skin-to-skin contact may reduce death risks for infants with a low birthweight.
The study, led by researchers from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Boston Children's Hospital in Massachusetts, is published in the journal Pediatrics.
According to the team - which is led Grace Chan, instructor at Harvard and a faculty member at Boston Children's Hospital - each year, 4 million babies worldwide die during their first month of life; those born early or at a low birth weight are particularly vulnerable.
Skin-to-skin contact, also known as kangaroo mother care (KMC), is often encouraged after birth as a way to improve breastfeeding practices.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), immediate skin-to-skin contact between mother and baby is associated with longer duration of breastfeeding.
Although health technologies - including incubators - can improve outcomes for infants facing risks, the researchers say such equipment is not typically available in low- and middle-income countries, which is where 99% of all neonatal deaths take place.
"While KMC or skin-to-skin care is particularly useful for low-birthweight babies born where medical resources are limited, developed and developing countries are moving to 'normalize' KMC or skin-to-skin as a beneficial practice for all newborns and mothers."
KMC results in 36% reduction in mortality
To further examine the effects of KMC, the researchers looked at 124 studies published between 2000-2014 that focused on skin-to-skin as a component of KMC, some of which included additional practices - such as breastfeeding - in their KMC definition.
Results showed that newborns who weighed less than 2,000 g (4.4 lbs) who survived to receive KMC had a 36% reduction in mortality and a 47% lower risk of major infection.
Additionally, KMC newborns had higher oxygen levels, bigger head circumference growth and lower pain measures. KMC also increased the likelihood of exclusive breastfeeding by 50% at hospital discharge.
Furthermore, these results were consistent across low-, middle- and high-income countries, prompting the researchers to declare that KMC practice is beneficial for all newborns and mothers.
Another study, published in October of this year, revealed that maternal stress levels benefit from skin-to-skin contact with newborns after birth.
Researchers from that study noted that babies who have an hour of skin-to-skin contact with their mothers after birth are less stressed, have more stable heart rates and cry less. But mothers also benefit, said lead study author Dr. Natalia Isaza, of the Children's National Health System in Washington, DC.
"Now we have more evidence that skin-to-skin contact can also decrease parental stress that can interfere with bonding, health and emotional wellness, and the interpersonal relations of parents, as well as breastfeeding rates," she said.