Physical contact with premature babies in the first hours after birth can help infants to develop better social skills, according to a new study.
In current practice, very premature babies are usually placed in an incubator to keep them warm and to stabilize them during the first hours after birth.
But new research, published in JAMA Network Open, shows that this system may not be helping infants after all.
The findings revealed that not only is skin-to-skin contact safe for babies but it is beneficial for their cardiorespiratory stabilization and temperature maintenance.
To get their results the team, from Karolinska Institutet in Sweden, studied 91 premature babies born at 28 to 33 weeks after placing them in either an incubator or their parents arms, using both the mother and father.
Professor Wibke Jonas said: “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.”
Specialist nurse Siri Lilliesköld added: “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.”
After four months, the social interaction between mother and infant was filmed and assessed by two psychologists who did not know which infant had received early skin-to-skin contact and which had not.
They then graded these interactions on a scale from 1-5, with one meaning cause for concern and five meaning very good quality.
The infants who received immediate skin-to-skin contact had significantly better results with an average of around 4 on the scale while the other infants averaged around 3.
Professor Jonas added: “What you could see was that the infants in the skin-to-skin group had slightly better communication skills, they were a bit more social and happier.
“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.
“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.”
Both authors believe that their findings should encourage the health system to change the way they care for premature babies.
Siri Lilliesköld concluded: “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.”
Produced in association with SWNS Talker