Having mom or dad hold their preemie baby against their own skin immediately after birth appears to help the infants in their development months later, new research shows.
In many neonatal wards, babies born prematurely are transferred soon after delivery to an incubator, to keep them warm and help them stabilize.
But even a few hours of skin-to-skin contact between a newborn and a parent could pay dividends for later development, Swedish researchers report.
At 4 months of age, “what you could see was that the infants in the skin-to-skin group had slightly better communication skills, they were a bit more social and happier,” compared to babies that hadn’t gotten that post-delivery contact, said research leader Wibke Jonas. She’s a midwife and associate professor in the department of women’s and children’s health at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm.
The findings were also novel in that researchers saw preemies benefited from immediate close contact with either parent.
“What is new about our study is that we also allowed the fathers to have skin-to-skin contact immediately after the birth,” Jonas said in an institute news release. “In most previous studies, it is the mother who is the primary caregiver, but in our study it was the fathers who had the most skin-to-skin contact.”
So, dads could be “a previously untapped resource that really has an important function in having immediate skin-to-skin contact with their infant if the mother is not available,” said study first author Siri Lilliesköld, a specialist nurse in neonatal care at Karolinska and a PhD student in the same department.
The study was published Nov. 30 in JAMA Network Open.
In their research, the Swedish team tracked the physical health and social development of 71 babies born prematurely.
During the first six hours after their birth, these tiny newborns were assigned to one of two conditions: Placed in an incubator per usual or allowed to rest, skin-to-skin, on the chest of either mom or dad.
In terms of physical health, the team reported that skin-to-skin contact soon after birth appears safe and healthy, with benefits for “cardiorespiratory stabilization” and body temperature.
And by 4 months of age, social and emotional benefits were linked to early skin-to-skin contact, as well.
Looking at social interactions between the 4-month-olds and their moms, child psychologists found that babies from the skin-to-skin group appeared to do a bit better.
“What you could see was that the infants in the skin-to-skin group had slightly better communication skills, they were a bit more social and happier,” Jonas explained in an institute news release.
She believes that, “If we combine the immediate medical care of the very premature babies with a relatively simple intervention such as skin-to-skin contact, it has effects on the infants’ social skills.”
That’s important, the researchers said, because experts have long known that babies born prematurely can lag socially compared to babies delivered at term.
The Karolinska team plans to follow the progress of the same cohort of babies to 12 and 24 months of age.
However, the findings are already prompting change at their medical center.
‘We have worked very actively to minimize separation between infants and parents in general, and now we have the evidence to do the same with these very premature babies,” Lilliesköld noted.
Find out more about the care of premature infants at the Mayo Clinic.
SOURCE: Karolinska Institute, news release, Nov. 30, 2023
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