In the first moments you spend with your brand-new babe, you’re sure to be completely enamored (and pretty exhausted). Those earliest minutes are precious. You’ll be getting to know each other’s faces, touch and smell. You’re both meeting a person who will forever shape and change your lives—it’s a big deal. But in between the whispered hellos and sweet snuggles, there’s a lot more going on than meets the eye. By taking a closer look at that momentous first hour, you’ll get a sneak peek at all that motherhood has in store. It’s going to be a wonderful, wild ride, mamas.
Love at first touch
With a hyperfocus on when and how labor will begin and occur, expectant parents often forget to consider what will happen immediately after—between pushing out a baby and happily pushing a pram.
The inaugural hour after birth, often called the “golden hour,” is extraordinary. Not only is it a transition from nonparent to parent (or from family of three to family of four, and so on), but it is also a time of great biological and physical importance for both mom and mini.
“This is a time of huge neurological changes. The part of mom’s brain that makes her fall in love with and protect her baby is being switched on, and her baby’s brain is getting ready and primed for this connection,” explains Tracy Donegan, San Francisco-area midwife, DONA birth doula and founder of GentleBirth.
The “love connection” is sparked by the hormone oxytocin, which surges through mom after birth—particularly when her newborn is placed on her belly or chest, skin-to-skin. This is the same hormone that will help her produce milk and talk to her baby with specific soft, cooing tones.
Of course, this isn’t exactly a blind date. Mom and baby—and even dad to an extent—have been getting acquainted throughout gestation. “Baby knows your voice. Baby knows your smell. All baby knows is you,” shares Sarah Longacre, Minneapolis birth doula and owner and founder of Blooma Yoga, Education and Wellness. “This first hour of baby’s life is a whole new way of knowing you. What a gift that your baby knows you from inside out first.”
This is a time of exploration and discovery for mothers and newborns. A feeling of familiarity (There you are!) mixed with taking in the new physical details (You have my eyes! This is what it feels like to touch you!).
“Take lots of deep breaths, and stay as present as you can. Look at your baby. Feel your baby,” encourages Longacre. “Let everything else in the room drift away. No need to pick up your phone and start calling or texting family and friends. You will never get this hour back.”
Neurological pathways are forming and connecting as baby’s reflexes are met with mom’s instinctive response. Your newborn is taking in and processing hundreds of new sights, smells and sensations.
“At birth your baby is ready to connect with you,” Donegan says. “He is looking for you. In simple terms, connection equals survival. His brain forms 700 to 1,000 new neural connections every second of every day for the first two years of life. In fact, he has almost twice as many brain cells as any adult in the room!”
When uninterrupted, a healthy newborn will display several stages of instinctive behavior. Most behaviors will proceed as follows:
- Cry (though not all babies cry immediately)
- A period of quiet and relaxation
- Alert and active movements
- Rooting (turning head while opening mouth) to indicate desire to eat
- Crawl to the breast
This ongoing cycle of stretches of stillness, spurts of activity, need to feed and interspersed cries are what you can expect from your tiny bean for the first few weeks of his life. Don’t count on much in the way of socializing just yet. While you’re learning the ropes of motherhood, he’s learning how to survive and thrive on the outside.
It might seem like an endless repeat of eat, sleep, poop, but it’s hard work for that new little human in your arms. Take time to appreciate the quiet, the wiggles, and the closeness of nursing in the days and weeks after delivery—just as you did during that meaningful first hour together.
Health and happiness
“If mom and baby are healthy there’s no reason why all routine procedures can’t be postponed until baby has had at least a full hour of skin-to-skin contact and has had the opportunity to breastfeed,” notes Donegan.
Both the World Health Organization (WHO) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommend spending time skin-to-skin immediately after birth. Most doulas and midwives, and many obstetricians, try to honor the golden hour, though perhaps to varying degrees. Some hospitals even practice “gentle C-sections,” which allow for some skin-to-skin immediately following surgery.
In a quietly held space, mom and her newbie get to produce and exchange all that lovely oxytocin. Baby gets to mass- produce all those neural connections. And several health benefits and regulatory processes are taking place for both parties—the simplest of which is warmth! This syncing of temperature, breathing, heart rate and more can continue in the weeks ahead by practicing kangaroo care at home. (Tip: Babywearing is a simple way to snuggle up, so go ahead and grab a soft wrap or sling to stay close.)
A true intervention-free golden hour would mean no weighing or cleaning of baby (save wiping his face, so that he can breathe and eat) and no tending to or stitching mom’s birth wounds.
Of course, when emergent medical intervention is necessary after birth—for either mother or child—the golden hour is interrupted. This is unfortunate but shouldn’t be seen as a lifelong setback.
If you miss out on your uninterrupted hour, you are encouraged to simply take it as soon as you’re able. Dim the lights, talk quietly, have skin-to-skin contact, study baby and—if breastfeeding—try to nurse.
“Separation of mom and baby can be a traumatic experience, and many moms grieve that time when they were apart,” explains Donegan. “Some birth professionals help moms to ‘redo’ the moment of birth with a ‘rebirthing’ ceremony, which takes place in a warm bath. It can be a very healing experience for mom.”
Donegan also adds, “Bonding with our babies occurs over a lifetime, so be gentle with yourself if you missed out on those first few moments or more.”
The bottom line: Savor that initial time together and be present, but stay flexible when things don’t go as planned.