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Anisa Arsenault
Associate Editor

Is Skipping the Incubator for Immediate Skin-to-Skin Better for Preemies?

The incubator helps preemies survive, but skin-to-skin might help them thrive, according to new research.
PUBLISHED ON 06/20/2017

If you’re pregnant, you probably can’t wait to meet and hold your baby soon after labor and delivery. And thanks to new innovations like gentle c-sections, immediate skin-to-skin contact is becoming an option regardless of the type of birth you have. That option, however, hasn’t been available for moms of preemies—but perhaps that’s about to change in the near future.

A new study examines whether preemies born as early as 28 weeks can skip the incubator for immediate skin-to-skin with mom. A team of researchers from Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) started to answer this question by looking at existing studies from the 32 week mark, smack in the middle of the premature range.

What is considered premature?

The American Congress of Gynecologists and Obstetricians (ACOG) says a baby born between 20 and 37 weeks is considered premature. But within that range, there are different breakdowns, which may vary based on your hospital.
20-26 weeks: Micropreemie
27-34 weeks: Premature
34-37 weeks: Late preterm

How did babies born at 32 weeks fare with immediate skin-to skin?

Based on a study conducted at NTNU-affiliate hospital, St. Olav’s, immediate skin-to-skin with babies born between week 32 and week 34 proved so beneficial that now, all babies born after the 32 week mark are doing it (provided they’re medically stable). While they’ll receive breathing support if they need it, skin-to-skin is the immediate course of action after birth—as opposed to being placed in an incubator—for both c-sections and vaginal deliveries.

What are the benefits of skin-to-skin right after birth?

While skin-to-skin helps mom bond with baby, studies of full-term babies have also linked it to better respiratory function, longer breastfeeding sessions and stabilized body temperature.

That last point, stabilized body temperature, is especially important for preemies. Incubators serve to recreate the warm, humid environment of the mother’s womb. Because a premature baby’s body temperature can drop rapidly, keeping it consistent is crucial for survival. Researchers hope that tools other than an incubator, like plastic and warm blankets, can be the bridges to allow skin-to-skin to happen while keeping baby’s core temperature warm.

Is skin-to-skin safe for even younger preemies?

That’s what researchers hope to learn next. Since 2014, they’ve been tracking a group of 41 families who welcomed babies at 28 weeks. They want to know both the short- and long-term effects of immediate skin-to-skin.

For the short-term, researchers are tracking the following on baby’s day of birth:

  • Body temperature
  • Oxygen saturation
  • Respiratory rate
  • Blood sugar

And for the long-term—through age 2—researchers are examining:

  • Motor function
  • Movement patterns
  • Language comprehension
  • Social development
  • Emotional development
  • Mother’s mental health

The results, which study authors say could influence maternity ward best practices, won’t be available until the end of 2018.

PHOTO: Jill Lehmann / Getty Images