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Skin to Skin

posted Mar 9, 2017, 3:26 AM by Camilla Conti

The healing power of touch

-- dedicated to all mothers who are struggling with breastfeeding, to all babies who are refusing to breastfeed and to those parents who just want to enjoy a deeper bonding experience with their children



When I think of my breastfeeding adventure, as a mother and not as a professional, the first memory that comes to my mind is the smell of my kids' head. I could smell them for hours! And there comes the association with the addictive smell of amniotic fluid and colostrum or God knows what they had on them during those first days post-partum. It lasted just for a short time and gradually changed into something different. But it was pervasive and inebriating to the extent that thinking about it gives me a sort of abstinence crisis type of craving.

I guess it's mother nature's way to help our bonding and our offsprings' survival.

Mothers recognise their child's smell and cry over hundreds and newborns recognise their mother's smell, heartbeat and even the smell of her colostrum.

We are mammals. Mammals of all species smell and lick their newborns at birth. It has been observed that animals who are not allowed to do so, develop a less caring attitude towards their babies.

I still remember when, as kids, my friend and I 'borrowed' a baby rabbit from a nearby place. Of course we didn't tell the farmer. But then my grandma found out and she was furious: by separating that baby from his mother even for the shortest time, we were putting his life in danger. Our touch might have hidden his smell making impossible for the mother to recognise it. There was a risk that by not recognising his smell, she might have refused her baby. All ended well but it certainly taught us a lesson.

Modern science saves lives but with its routines and practices it sometimes creates needless complications, too. So it happens with birth which is often hypermedicalised in hospitals and with the most natural of processes -- breastfeeding.

Those first bonding moments which a farmer would be very careful not to interfere with when it comes to his cattle, are often disrupted in humans. For a reason or the other mothers are separated from their babies at birth - note that sometimes, something as little as two hours of separation can be fatal! And here come the breastfeeding problems: a baby who refuses the breast or doesn't latch/suckle effectively, or simply sleeps at the breast; a mother who doesn't know how to work it out and feels empty, alone, helpless and confused.

It is very important for parents' not to blame themselves for such events, because it is just how things often go and catch us unprepared. We are also aware of the cultural power held by doctors in our society and how it can be hard to question their actions and prescriptions  - even more so for parents who are going through the physical and emotional roller coaster of a delivery and of the all new responsibility of caring for a new tiny life.

The good news is that like most events, even breastfeeding problems come with their own solution written in their DNA, if we are ready to allow it some time and patience.

When a wound happens at a physical level, it is our own body's messages that call for internal actions of platelets and repair mechanisms.

When the hurt happens at the level of bonding, it is in the subtle space of touching, smelling and feeling  that we need to act.

In few words: invert the tendency. Touch, smell, feel. Do it a hundred times more than the amount of touch, smell and feeling you have been deprived of. And why not? Remember that you are a mammal mama: kiss and lick, if you wish!

Spend time with your baby at a very physical, intimate level.  At the skin level.

Our skin knows more than we do and so does our nose: they are capable of healing wounds and building bridges, beyond theories and prescriptions. Beyond clocks, scales and numbers. The same capacity belongs to our baby's skin and nose.

So here's a simple yet magic formula that has been proven successful to solve most breastfeeding problems: keep your baby skin to skin and do it as much as you can.

Lie down on a 30 degree angle, in the comfort of your pillows, with your baby on your naked chest, snuggling amongst your breasts . Your baby's chest needs to be naked, too, which means no clothes above the nappy line. If cold or discretion are a concern, you can wrap yourselves up in a blanket or bedsheet or in a loose vest.

You could also try wearing your baby in a wrap or a sari, which allows you to do house activities hands free while you are keeping your baby skin to skin. The right arrangement will show nothing of your body and you can always wear a loose shirt on top.

Skin to skin contact is beneficial for babies of any age, whether they are born on term or prematurely.

It has been associated with more stable breathing and heart parameters, less cry, better sleep and growth and improved feeding abilities, higher immunity. If practiced with good frequency, confidence and tension free attitude, it has the superpower of bringing back to the breast a baby who refuses to breastfeed.

A mother and a child who spend time skin to skin become relaxed and attuned to each other. A silent communication between the two allows them to read each other's body and feel each other's feelings.

Yet in my practice I find great resistance to try this simple recipe, or to practice it to the right extent.

Could it be that we could all learn to let go, focus on the present moment and enjoy it despite of the odds?

As it is for perfectly imperfect systems, humans and their babies are not machines: here's their challenge and their strength. Like there is no mathematical equation of health, so it is not for optimal breastfeeding.

Yet as humans, we have the capacity to grow, regenerate, reorganise and learn. And so do our babies.

If we allow ourselves a brief deviation of focus from our problem and learn to enjoy the actual processes of bonding and touch with our baby simply for what it is, with joy and patience, we might be surprised by the effects. A temporary loss of control makes space for stuff that cannot be spoken or taught but just felt and experienced. Nature is allowed to set things right on our behalf - and normally it does it better than us.

Mom and baby feel each other like it used to happen before the separation.

As a note on this last point, it is very important to de-stress and concentrate on skin to skin as a cuddle time, a pleasurable bonding experience per se, apart from the goal, apart from your LC's advice or from the manual's prescriptions. We understand the tension generated by a baby who refuses to feed, yet we are deeply convinced that, at least for part of the day and night, we should focus on the process of bonding rather than on the fact that our baby is not breastfeeding.

If we trust our body and our baby, rest will happen.

Newborns have a sixth sense which instantly makes them feel our tension and anxiety, so it is wise to make a conscious effort to avoid those. All relaxation techniques can help in this regards (deep breathing, yoga, reiki, aroma therapy, positive visualisations, etc.) but if we learn to let go and enjoy it, skin-to-skin time spent with our baby will itself act as a relaxant.

Soon our baby will get used to it and enjoy it. He will smell, lick, suckle hands and end up finding the nipple and self-latch, just as he would have done at birth, if circumstances had allowed.

An interesting fact to know is the existence of a very powerful hormone involved in breastfeeding: it is called oxitocin and it is responsible for milk let-down and for the blissfull feeling of drowsiness and contentment that mother and baby feel when they are breastfeeding effectively. Our body releases it only when we are relaxed and at ease. Therefore if we are tensed when our baby latches onto our breast, we might be full of milk but this milk will not flow - or it will, but in less quantity. The effect is that our baby will not get a reward from latching and will soon loose his interest in suckling: he might sleep at the breast or even refuse it.

So be confident and be in the moment. Enjoy it for its uniqueness and for the opportunity to be in close contact with your baby.

It might take time and there might be back and forths, progress and regress, but in almost all likelihoods everything will fall in place.