“I don’t remember reaching down, or lowering my gown, but suddenly she was there – lying on my chest”
“Directly after birth, if no immediate medical attention is required, your baby will be placed on your chest,” the midwife explained.
“You will be left to have skin-to-skin time with your baby. This is very important – the skin-to-skin contact will help you to bond, it will allow your baby to learn your smell, and it will help to facilitate breastfeeding.”
Ten couples sat in a semi-circle on an assortment of chairs, Swiss Balls and beanbags; listening intently.
After two full days of learning about relaxation and breathing techniques, pain relief options and birthing positions, the Antenatal Class had finally reached the moment that we had all been waiting for: Meeting our babies.
I couldn’t wait. After so many months of feeling each flutter, twist and stretch, in just a few short weeks she would be born. I would finally be able to hold her. Feel her skin. Look into her eyes.
Although I was excited, the strong emphasis on skin-to-skin contact did cause some anxiety. What if something went wrong? What if my baby is rushed to intensive care, or something is wrong with me, and we miss out on this time together? If we missed that opportunity to bond, would it impact our future relationship?
Adding to my anxiety was the theory that, in the first 24 hours after birth, only parents should hold the baby.
Some close friends of ours had introduced their son with ‘look but don’t touch’ hospital visits. In the first 24 hours, their baby was snugly wrapped and family members were invited to gaze down into the bassinet and observe his tiny features. They feared that passing the baby around too many arms too early would confuse the bonding process.
But my mother was going to be in our delivery room. After enduring the entire labour with us, how could I deny her a hold? If early contact is so important for bonding, shouldn’t grandparents (at least) also be given this opportunity?
When my daughter was finally born, the obstetrician asked if I’d like to pick my baby up. I didn’t hesitate. I don’t remember reaching down, or lowering my gown, but suddenly she was there – lying on my chest, looking up at me with those big doe eyes. She was quiet, contemplative, and I cried because she was so beautiful.
All the pain of labour quickly dissipated and I was gifted this wonderful moment with my child. After a time – I have no idea how long – my baby was wrapped in hospital blankets and passed to her Dad, and then he handed her over to Grandma.
But not all women have such positive experiences.
Swedish researchers reviewed 29 research papers from nine countries, collating the skin-to-skin – or ‘Kangaroo Mother Care’ – experiences of more than 500 parents.
The experiences, published in the International Journal of Qualitative Studies on Health and Well-being, included skin-to-skin contact in birthing suites immediately after birth, as well as in hospital wards and Neonatal Intensive Care Units (NICU) over subsequent days and weeks.
In the studies, parents described skin-to-skin contact as:
- A heart-warming experience: Wonderful and joyful, with feelings of instant and overwhelming love.
- Feeling valued: Mothers of premature babies felt they had an important role to play in their infant’s recovery. They also felt a sense of hope that everything would be okay.
- A learning experience: It taught parents how to hold and correctly handle the baby and boosted their confidence in being able to leave the hospital.
- Intimate togetherness: When parents took turns holding the baby it strengthened their sense of being a family. Parents felt closer to their infant and it created a special bond.
- An energy-draining experience: Parents felt reported feeling afraid of suffocating or hurting their baby, and worried that the extended periods of time spent with their newborn was taking them away from other children or family responsibilities.
- Feeling pressured and exposed: Some mothers were not comfortable exposing their body in the hospital environment, but felt pressured to do so. Fathers felt they were being critically assessed and considered incompetent by hospital staff.
Despite my own positive skin-to-skin experience, I do identify with the women who felt drained, pressured, and even exposed.
In the time it takes to move from the delivery room to the postnatal ward, the focus shifts away from familial bonding. Rather than being an intimate moment for parent and child, skin-to-skin becomes a functional, obligatory means of establishing breastfeeding.
“Okay darl, take off your top, she needs to feel your skin,” the nurses would insist.
My baby’s need to be nourished was the paramount concern (and rightly so), but I couldn’t help but feel like an undignified dairy cow. My value reduced to the amount of colostrum that I could produce, as the lactation consultants poked, prodded, pinched at my teats.
The research echoed these feelings, with reports that mothers of full-term babies “reported unease at having to expose their body on the ward” and felt that “their autonomy were not respected.”
I wasn’t alone in my discomfort. As a man, without a role to play in the breastfeeding ritual, my partner felt that it would be inappropriate to expose his chest in hospital and avoided having skin-to-skin time with our baby. His feelings were not dissimilar to the fathers in the study, who felt “frustrated and helpless, as they could not interact with their infant.”
After arriving home from hospital, one of the first things that we did was lay our baby down on her Dad’s chest to sleep. Finally, he was given this opportunity to bond – and it was wonderful for him, too.
What are your experiences with skin-to-skin contact? SHARE with us in the comments below.
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