Birth can be a tiring time for both mother and baby, but previous studies have outlined the many benefits of mothers (or fathers) sharing skin-to-skin contact with a newborn.
For example, babies who have an hour of post-birth skin contact are less stressed, which means their breathing and heart rate is more stable, they cry less and they digest their food better when they start to feed.
Because a mother’s chest area is warmer than other parts of her body, it prevents her new baby from cooling down, which is a significant health risk. Additionally, being so close to the mother will help the baby pick up some of her skin’s friendly bacteria, preventing infection.
Furthermore, like any mammal, a new baby has the instinct to want to be in close contact with its mother or father. When it is taken out of this natural comfort area, a newborn will display physiological signs of stress, including becoming sleepy or lethargic, and becoming disassociated or crying and protesting in despair.
Investigators behind the latest research – led by neonatologist Dr. Natalia Isaza of the Children’s National Health System in Washington, DC – say for babies born prematurely or with special medical needs, the all-important early bonding can sometimes be interrupted by medical care required in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).
‘A simple technique to benefit both parent and child’
The researchers say this early bonding time is also important for parents, so they set out to examine the stress levels of mothers before and after they held their babies for an hour in a “kangaroo style,” which means skin-to-skin inside the pouch of their shirt.
The study took place at a large metropolitan NICU, and Dr. Isaza says they “found that all of the mothers reported an objective decrease in their stress level after skin-to-skin contact with their babies.”
Infant birthweights ranged from less than 1 lb to over 8 lbs, and the ages varied from 3 to 109 days. All of the infants were being treated for a health issue of some sort, and over half needed oxygen support.
Results showed that maternal stress of being separated from their infants decreased for mothers after skin-to-skin contact, and it improved their overall experience in the NICU.
“We already know there are physiological benefits in the newborns when they are held skin-to-skin,” says Dr. Isaza, who adds:
“Now we have more evidence that skin-to-skin contact can also decrease parental stress that can interfere with bonding, health and emotional wellness, and the interpersonal relations of parents, as well as breastfeeding rates.”
She adds that skin-to-skin contact is a “simple technique to benefit both parent and child that perhaps should be encouraged in all NICUs.”
Unless there are medical reasons to prevent it, the prevailing belief is that the vast majority of babies should be able to be placed skin-to-skin with the mother, even after a cesarean section. And many hospitals are giving skin-to-skin contact precedence over post-birth routines, such as weighing the baby.
Can maternal stress in pregnancy affect child’s motor development?
Women who experience a lot of stress in pregnancy may have children who are at risk for poorer motor development outcomes.
The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Notre Dame Australia and the Telethon Kids Institute, is published in the journal Child Development.
Previous studies have shown certain risks for offspring linked to maternal stress in pregnancy; everything from increased risk for dental cavities to increased asthma risk has been suggested.
But until now, very few studies have analyzed the link between maternal stress in pregnancy and children’s motor development.
To further investigate this topic, the researchers conducted a longitudinal study that followed around 2,900 Australian mothers who were primarily white.
At 18 weeks pregnant, the women completed a questionnaire about stressful events during their pregnancies, which included financial difficulties, losing a friend or relative, separation or divorce, marital problems, pregnancy problems, losing a job or moving.
Then, at 34 weeks pregnant, the women completed the same questionnaire again.
‘Accumulative effect of stress on fetal motor system’
Fast forward to when the women’s children were 10, 14 and 17 years old, the researchers assessed their overall motor development and coordination with a movement test. This test checked:
- hand strength
- ability to touch a finger to their nose and then back to the index finger
- distance jump
- heel-toe walking along a line, and
- standing on one foot.
Additionally, the researchers checked the children’s fine motor skills by assessing their ability to: move small beads from one box to another, thread beads onto a rod, tap their finger for 10 seconds, turn a nut on a bolt and slide a rod along a bar.
The researchers grouped the children into three groups: those whose mothers experienced no stress during pregnancy, those whose mothers experienced fewer than three stressful events and those whose moms experienced three or more stressful events during pregnancy.
Results showed that the kids born to mothers who experienced the most stress in pregnancy had the lowest scores on motor development during all 3 survey years. The researchers say this suggests an “accumulative effect of stress on the developing fetal motor system.”
What is more, the greatest observed differences in motor development were between the children whose mothers experienced no stress and those who experienced the most stress.
Cerebellar cortex development implicated
Interestingly, the researchers found that stressful events experienced by the mothers in later pregnancy appeared to have more influence on the child’s motor development scores, compared with those whose mothers experienced the stress earlier.
The team says this may be down to the development of the cerebellar cortex, which is a brain area that develops later in pregnancy and controls many motor functions.
Commenting on their findings, study coauthor Prof. Beth Hands, from the University of Notre Dame Australia, says:
”Given our findings on the importance of mothers’ emotional and mental health on a wide range of developmental and health outcomes, programs aimed at detecting and reducing maternal stress during pregnancy may alert parents and health professionals to potential difficulties and improve the long-term outcomes for these children.”
She and her colleagues add that because low motor development has been linked to worse mental and physical outcomes, it is important to investigate early risk factors to facilitate early intervention.
“Pregnant women who are under stress could be counseled about cost-effective stress-reduction techniques such as gentle exercise,” says coauthor Tegan Grace, PhD.
Although children with low motor ability can have difficulty writing, throwing and running, the researchers add that this can be improved in many cases with intervention and support.
Medical News Today reported on a study that suggested stress in pregnancy alters the vaginal microbiome, affecting offspring gut microbiome and brain development.