Yes, Preemies Need Skin-to-Skin Contact, Too

A new study highlights the importance of skin-to-skin contact for premature newborns — and the role dads have in kangaroo care.

Cheerful father holding his cute newborn baby.
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In the old days of hospital births, immediately upon birth, newborns were whisked away to the nursery and only brought to the mother for feedings. Nowadays, skin-to-skin contact and “rooming in” are pretty much the norm for babies born at full-term who aren’t at risk for complications. Preemies, however, have been a different story, for fairly obvious reasons — medically complex or fragile newborns, or even babies who have a couple of risk factors, are moved almost immediately into an incubator and housed in pediatric intensive care units (PICUs). Being separated from their babies so soon after birth can be traumatic for parents, but a recent study found that separation may not be necessary.

Researchers from the prestigious Swedish medical school, the Karolinska Institutet, found that skin-to-skin contact is not only safe for preemies but may be beneficial in many ways. The research team examined data collected from 91 premature babies born at 28 to 33 weeks who were either placed in an incubator immediately after birth or were placed in skin-to-skin contact with one of the parents immediately after birth. Their findings were published in JAMA Network Open.

Among the first findings was that skin-to-skin contact helped premature babies regulate cardiorespiratory function and body temperature. After follow-ups at four months and 71 months, the team also discovered that skin-to-skin babies who rested on either the mother or father’s chest showed significantly improved social and communication skills than those placed in an incubator. While the study is small, it builds on other studies about skin-to-skin contact, otherwise known as Kangaroo Care — the World Health Organization, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine have all endorsed the practice.

Researchers have found that skin-to-skin contact helps establish breastfeeding, helps maintain baby’s temperature, stabilizes their blood sugar, and for premature babies, helps stabilize their heart rate. It also may promote brain development in babies, too, and lessen the risk of postpartum in parents, Fatherly previously reported. But this study could have significant implications, especially for dads.

"What is new about our study is that we also allowed the fathers to have skin-to-skin contact immediately after the birth. 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," lead researcher Wibke Jonas, midwife, senior lecturer, and associate professor at Karolinska Institutet's Department of Women's and Children's Health, explained in a statement.

"The study has identified fathers as 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," co-author Siri Lilliesköld, a Ph.D. student and specialist nurse in neonatal care, said.

Kangaroo Care has traditionally been seen as just for moms, but recently, more dads have taken up the call for skin-to-skin, benefitting from increased bonding with their babies and helping infants become more attached and confident as they develop.

"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," said Wibke.

“Previous studies have shown that premature babies perform slightly poorer when socially interacting, for example, they do not give as clear signals in the interaction with their mothers. The closeness between babies and their parents at birth may, therefore, stimulate later interaction and thus the development of the infant.”

The researchers are pushing for this type of care to become the norm in Swedish pediatric hospitals. “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 said.

Could it become the norm for the U.S. as well? There has been a groundswell of support for the practice from experts all over the United States and it is getting talked about more and more often. But having it part of the hospital routine in America — well, we’re not quite there yet.