The Power of Touch


For babies, the nine months of pregnancy may feel like one long, loving embrace. It’s not surprising, then, that studies support the benefits of skin-to-skin contact for mothers and babies from the moment of birth, throughout infancy and beyond.

Expectant mothers can enjoy these benefits by including immediate skin-to-skin contact with their babies as part of their birth plan.

“Even for babies born by cesarean section, skin-to-skin time right after delivery can be a wonderful, strong start for both mother and baby,” said obstetrician Susan Crowe, MD, director of outpatient breastfeeding medicine services at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford.

When the health of mom and baby allows, postponing the normal protocol of bathing, weighing and testing the baby can clear the way for shared skin-to-skin time.

“During this time, babies experience nine instinctive stages: birth cry, relaxation, awakening, activity, resting, ‘crawling’ (a shifting movement toward the breast), familiarization, suckling and sleep,” said Crowe, who’s also a clinical assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the Stanford University School of Medicine. “For a mother who desires to breastfeed, supporting skin-to-skin time is one way we can help her reach that goal.”

Depending on each mother’s birth plan and medical needs, skin-to-skin time with baby offers benefits, whether her baby is born vaginally or by cesarean section, whether it happens in the first hour or when mom is medically ready, and whether or not she is breastfeeding. Skin-to-skin time in the first hour helps regulate babies’ temperature, heart rate and breathing, and helps them cry less. It also increases mothers’ relaxation hormones.

A 2012 study published in the journal Neonatology showed that 95 percent of mothers who spent skin-to-skin time were breastfeeding exclusively 48 hours after delivery, and 90 percent were still breastfeeding exclusively six weeks later.

Babies and mothers with special medical needs also benefit from being skin-to-skin when it becomes medically possible. Until that time—and later as well—the mother’s partner can provide skin-to-skin time with baby, which can help keep the baby warm and provide bonding time.

As babies grow, infant massage provides a natural next step to continue this bond and its benefits. “Infant massage is always about bonding, loving and respect,” said Maureen McCaffrey, a certified infant massage instructor at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford. “We start by asking permission and then listen for the baby’s cues to see if they’re engaging or disengaging. Babies communicate with us from the moment they’re born through body language, sound and behavior.”

In her classroom, McCaffrey sets up a nurturing environment that’s an easy, safe and relaxing example to parents. “The environment is very important. Parents can begin to feel the benefits just by setting up a quiet space where massage will take place.”

McCaffrey teaches a variety of infant massage techniques tailored to the unique needs of babies and families and focuses on the shared benefits for both mother and baby. In just a sampling of its benefits, infant massage:

    1. Enhances babies’ awareness of being loved, accepted and safe
    2. Improves sleep patterns for babies
    3. Improves digestion and elimination for babies
    4. Reduces fussiness for babies and increases their comfort in their environment
    5. Improves neurological function in babies
    6. Increases weight gain for premature and full-term babies
    7. Increases lactation production for mothers
    8. Reduces postpartum depression for mothers
    9. Improves relaxation for both baby and parents

From the first cuddle to the lasting bond, babies and parents can benefit enormously from learning their “first language”—touch—creating a strong start toward a lifetime of nurturing affection and good health