Why is newborn skin-to-skin contact with fathers and unborn parents important? Here’s what the science says

Shortly after a baby is born, it is increasingly common these days for the father or non-biological parent to be encouraged to place the newborn directly on their chest. This skin-to-skin contact is often called “kangaroo care” because it mimics the way kangaroos provide warmth and security to babies.

Mothers have been encouraged to give kangaroo care for decades and many do it instinctively after giving birth; it has been shown to help mother and baby connect and breastfeed.

So what does the evidence say about kangaroo care for other parents?

A growing body of research

A growing body of research shows that kangaroo care provides benefits for both baby and parent.

A study that measured levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) and blood pressure in new fathers found:

Fathers who held their babies in skin-to-skin contact for the first time showed a significant reduction in physiological responses to stress.

Another study in Taiwan involving fathers and infants (newborns) found benefits for bonding and attachment:

The results of these studies support the positive effects of skin-to-skin contact interventions on infant care behavior of fathers in terms of exploring, talking, touching and caring and on strengthening father attachment. -new born.

A paper I co-authored with Qiuxia Dong from the University of South Australia revealed:

Studies have reported several positive benefits of kangaroo care for fathers, such as reducing stress, promoting fatherhood, and strengthening the father-child bond.

Qiuxia Dong also conducted a study (which I co-authored) exploring the experiences of fathers who had babies in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Adelaide Women’s and Children’s Hospital.

This study found that kangaroo care helps fathers connect and bond with their babies in a critical care environment. This had a positive impact on fathers’ confidence and self-esteem. As one father told us:

I think after all the stress, when I have skin-to-skin contact, I can actually calm down a bit. I sit and relax, I can cuddle my child and it’s just a bit of a happy place for me and him to calm down, not to work all the time, not to be stressed. I have other things on my mind all the time, but it’s time to relax and switch off a bit.

Another told us:

She snuggled up a bit, kinda smelled my scent I guess, and then literally fell asleep. It was great. It was very comforting for her and me I guess.

As one father said:

Of course they can hear your heartbeat and all that stuff, of course the heat […] it’s being close to your baby, I think that would be the best way to build a relationship early.

However, this study also reported that some fathers found kangaroo care difficult as it can be time consuming. It’s not always easy to juggle commitments such as caring for other children and working.

Skin-to-skin contact is often called “kangaroo care” because it mimics the way kangaroos provide warmth and security to babies.
AP Photo/David Goldman

Involve both parents

One study noted that fathers can sometimes feel like onlookers on the periphery when a newborn arrives.

Encouraging and educating all unborn parents, including fathers, to give kangaroo care is a valuable way to get them involved. And if a caesarean birth makes it difficult for the mother to give kangaroo care while she’s still in theater, the father or non-birthing parent is the next best person to do so while the mother or birth parent is not able.

A caesarean birth sometimes makes it difficult for the mother to provide kangaroo care while she is still in the operating room.
Isaac Hermar/PexelsCC PER

More research needed

There is a need for broader research on these issues, particularly on the experiences of culturally diverse fathers and other unborn parents.

But the research literature on kangaroo care shows that there are good reasons for fathers and unborn parents to do kangaroo care when a baby is born. As we concluded in our study, in the harsh environment of neonatal intensive care units, kangaroo care can serve:

like a silent language of love.