|Skin-to-skin contact is
GOOD FOR FATHERS
|Fathers can and should do SSC. The more premature the baby, the more skin-to-skin is needed, the more father should help.|
Having emphasized the importance of mothers, I want to add that fathers are ALSO IMPORTANT. But they are not mothers – they cannot breastfeed.
Fathers can however provide most other care just as well as mothers. Neuroscience studies have been done on mothers using sound of a crying baby, their own and others, or images of their baby compared to those of others. The brain circuits, neurotransmitters and hormones of mothering neurobehaviour has thus been carefully mapped, and it is very, very similar to that of all other primates.
Fathers provided the same sounds and faces have brains that behave exactly the same way as mothers! This is actually not so common in nature, it happens in only 8% of species. Humans belong to that 8% !! Scientists refer to this as “homologous neuro-endocrine behaviours”. They are not identical, and they respond in subtly different ways, perhaps because their hormones are in different concentrations or levels. . But the sum of these circuits is to provide protection in a broader way than the immediate nurturing protection of the mother. In ancient times, our evolutionary history, this would have been necessary for survival of both mother and offspring. In most mammal species the mother can manage quite well on her own, but humans have neuro-endocrine behavior that depend on sociality and “bi-parental care”. In effect this means the mother cares for the infant, and the father cares for the mother-infant dyad. With respect to “gender equality” – I maintain that mothers and fathers have equal worth and value and status, but they also have biologically unique and diverse functions and purposes with respect to reproduction and survival of the species.
In the modern context, this biology has not changed. But what has changed is that preterm and low birth weight infants are surviving that did not do so in the past. Research has shown that fathers are in fact in this situation better able to engage with the care of their preterm infants. Mother’s following preterm birth experience loss and need time to process this before they can engage with an infant they do not know will live. Fathers however may be shocked, but are immediately ready to engage in care. Paternal skin-to-skin contact has been shown to be safe and effective for temperature regulation and for cardiorespiratory stabilization. (Fathers warm their babies more than mothers, some think this is overheating, but “overheating” has not been proved, it might be the “real normal”.) Such skin-to-skin contact should start at birth, and given the low or zero separation tolerance of these smallest babies, the SSC should also be continuous. To achieve this, mother and father need to take turns and both be equally involved in providing SSC, over and above which mother needs to provide expressed breast milk, well before baby is able to suckle on its own.
The second major modern change is that many babies are born by Caesarean section (in some countries too many!). Again, another new role for father: neonates born this way do best in skin-to-skin contact with father. Some will even start suckling on the father’s breasts in this first hour, by which time the mother is usually enough recovered to allow gentle transfer to mother’s breast, where baby usually continues as if nothing had happened. Father’s experiencing SSC in this way seem profoundly moved and develop a special bond with these babies.
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