SSC is neuroscience

Skin-to-skin contact is key to perinatal neuroscience

Birth is a critical period – it is the earliest sensations that fire the earliest essential brain pathways, both in the baby and the mother.

I said earlier: “For the human newborn, this place is the mother. It might seem a bit insulting to say mother is a place, but to the newborn brain she is first the safe place, and then becomes the safe person.”  Again, it is sensations that are the key. Mother’s smell, both from her body but also specifically from her breasts, fire specific pathways to the front of the brain. Smell also send signals directly to the AMYGDALA … which I call the “emotional processing unit” of the brain. It sends a reassuring message: “SAFE”. At the same time, direct skin-to-skin contact, specifically the deep pressure component of contact, sends messages to the same amygdala. The result is that another signal is fired by the amygdala to the “prefrontal orbital cortex”. In this part of the brain is an activation centre for orientation: activation of the left side leads to an approach orientation, an anticipation of reward. Activation of the right side leads to avoid orientation, expectation of punishment. Skin-to-skin contact very specifically fires the left sided approach orientation. The CRITICAL PERIOD for this pathway to mature is 6-8 weeks. After this, it is eye-to-eye contact which is important for the next pathway building from here.

The SKIN-TO-SKIN CONTACT is very specifically firing two key capacities in the newborn brain. The first is the emotional brain: the amygdala is the sorting station for all emotions, and will appropriately decide what situations are safe to approach, and what are better avoided. This is EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE. But if the approach pathway is not fired, the avoid orientation will predominate. Adults with predominant “avoid activity” are more at risk for depression, and have poorer resilience, both physiologically and psychologically.

The second capacity  is SOCIAL INTELLIGENCE. The amygdala (the emotional sorting station” has inputs from a “face coding” area (fusiform gyrus), and a “am I safe here” decision centre (peri-aquiductal gray), and the subsequent capacity to choose wisely between approach and avoid is core to SOCIAL INTELLIGENCE. (In autism, the fusiform and the approach centre are the most commonly affected).

This is surprising to many … emotional and social IQ is something the psychologists and social scientists  have regarded as far more mature capabilities and competencies than can be expected in a newborn.  For the last 100 years, the only newborns they have studied have been separated newborns, and they do not show this capacity, because maternal skin-to-skin contact is not firing it. It is not that such infants do not have this capacity, it is that they do not express it if they are separated. Even then, in terms of development, emotional and social intelligence of an adult is not the same as that of this infant at one day … but the optimal development should  start at birth.  (See also quote below)

There is an even more surprising thing about this birth period. The behaviours of the newborn send sensory signals to the mother’s brain, that have a profound effect on the mother. Oxytocin – the love hormone – is produced in the mother, which increases eye-to-eye contact which increases oxytocin oxytocin even more. In the mother’s cingulate gyrus, a fear centre is inhibited by high oxytocin, making her fearless to protect her baby. Working with dopamine, looking after her baby is addictively rewarding to the same approach pathway the baby fired. The baby stimulates prolactin by suckling on the breast, which increases milk production. Perhaps above all, the mother becomes more sensitive and tuned in to her baby, better able to understand her baby’s signals, needs and wants.  “Parenting becomes so much easier.”  (See film:  Grow Your Baby’s Brain.)