Throughout your pregnancy you dream of the day when you finally meet your new baby. You imagine their birth as being the happiest day of your life, when you deliver your baby safely and are immediately able to hold them in your arms and cuddle them. If your baby is born prematurely, they are usually quickly whisked away to NICU/SCUBU for emergency care. When you see your baby next, they are separated from you by the plastic of the preemie cribs, with all the wires and machines surrounding them. It can be a shocking and scary experience. Premature babies are tiny and vulnerable, so in the past parents were discouraged from holding them for fear of causing them harm. Doctors have now realised that touch and skin to skin contact with mum and dad can actually have a remarkable and amazing effect on the well-being of premature babies.
One “rescuing hug” – twin saves her sister
In 1995 two teeny tiny twins were born 12 weeks premature weighing just 2 lbs. While in the NICU, one twin started struggling and the prognosis was not good. A hospital nurse fought to put the twin sisters in the same incubator. Remarkably the stronger twin wrapped her left arm around her sister. When she did the poorly baby’s heart rate stabilised and her temperature went back to normal. The skin to skin contact contact seemed to have a very real, physical effect on the weaker baby. Despite everyone believing that the smaller twin would not make it, when her stronger twin snuggled up to her, within minutes, her blood-oxygen readings improved.
Known as the ‘rescuing hug’ the twins’ skin to skin cuddles proved just how incredible the magic of touch can be to premature babies.
In NICU parents are now encouraged to touch their babies as much as possible and to hold them close to their bare chests. This kind of skin to skin contact is known as kangaroo care.
Kangaroo care was first developed to manage the risk of hypothermia in prematurely born babies in Columbia, where they struggled with a lack of access to incubators. This method, in essence, uses the mother’s or father’s body heat to keep their babies warm. By placing their tiny baby close to their heartbeat, they provide nurturing care. In the earliest experiments researchers saw the positive effects of such care. The effects were so marked in terms of how much they helped tiny babies thrive that kangaroo care has become normal practice on every neonatal ward.
How it feels to cuddle your premature baby
A study looking into parents’ first moments with their premature baby found that it was a highly emotional time, characterised by a roller coaster of emotions. New mums and dads reported conflicting feelings about seeing their baby in NICU. They felt scared and excited about being able to see and touch them. They described being nervous and tentative to hold their babies in case they caused them any harm. Parents compared their frail newborns to ‘tiny sparrows’. Being able to hold their babies for the first time was described by many as an ‘overwhelming’ experience. Half of parents who talked about touching and holding their babies felt they bonded immediately, from the very first touch.
The power of touch can help babies as well as parents
Kangaroo care has been found to have a number of benefits for newborns but especially premature babies and their parents. Unicef lists the effects, stating that this kind of skin to skin contact:
- Regulates the baby’s heart rate and breathing, helping them to better adapt to life outside the womb.
- Stimulates digestion and an interest in feeding.
- Regulates temperature.
- Enables colonisation of the baby’s skin with the mother’s friendly bacteria, thus providing protection against infection.
- Stimulates the release of hormones to support breastfeeding and mothering.
- Calms and relaxes both mother and baby.
Additional benefits for babies in the neonatal unit are that skin to skin contact:
- Improves oxygen saturation.
- Reduces cortisol (stress) levels, particularly following painful procedures.
- Encourages pre-feeding behaviour.
- Assists with growth.
- May reduce the length of the hospital stay.
- If the mother expresses following a period of skin-to-skin contact, her milk volume will improve and the milk expressed will have her newest antibodies.
This long list of benefits shows just how important a mother’s and a father’s touch can be.
Long term effects of kangaroo care
Research into the long term effects of early kangaroo care for premature babies, proves just how crucial this early touch can be. It doesn’t just help your tiny baby at the start of their life but the effects last long into their development. Science has shown that physical touch, like hugging, has a powerful effect on infants’ mental, emotional and physical development, both in the short and long term. One decade long study found that
Children (who had kangaroo care) showed better cognitive skills and executive abilities in repeated testing from six months to ten years.
Massage for premature babies
Another way touch can be healing for premature babies is through massage. Studies have shown that premature babies put on more weight when they’re massaged and they can leave hospital earlier. Massage might also help your premature baby’s brain develop, promote his sleep, boost his immune system and circulation, help his tummy and bowels work better, and satisfy his need for touch and closeness. Your neonatal nurse or midwife can teach you how to apply gentle massage to your new baby to relax and soothe them.
Touch can make all the difference
Premature babies who spend their first days or weeks in NICU often have to undergo not only separation from their parents but invasive and painful procedures. Preterm babies have been shown to have a more limited response to touch once they leave hospital. However, if premature babies have lots of skin to skin care and gentle touch from parents while in hospital, they develop more normal responses to touch once they leave hospital. This goes to show just how important touch can be for preterm babies. Studies have shown that by experiencing lots of parental touch and skin-to-skin contact in NICU that:
such experiences help with normal brain development and enable the preterm baby to be discharged from the hospital with brain responses comparable to babies born at term.
Touch can take many forms, including breastfeeding (if possible), cuddling and massage. It can also create increased responsiveness in the newborn baby. Just as importantly, touch can help mums and dads form a beautiful bond with their newborn baby.
See our article Silent struggle: Dads of premature babies suffer more stress than mums for more on the challenges parents face when baby comes early.
- “Their “Rescuing Hug” Stunned the World, Now the Twins Are All Grown Up”, LifeNews
- “Skin-to-skin contact”, Unicef
- “The Loving Touch is Critical for Premature Infants”, Elsevier
- “Gentle Touch Bolsters Brain Response in NICU Babies”, Very Well Family
- “Preterm Infant Massage Therapy Research: A Review”, NCBI