Cuddling with your infant is the best, and not just because of their soft skin and sweet smell, but also because of how beneficial it is for their bonding, growth and development.
And much like how snuggling, talking and playing with your little one — things you'll love doing anyway — do wonders for stimulating your child intellectually, it can also help you learn important cues and habits.
"Keeping your baby close can help you start to understand his hunger and comfort cues and this can be beneficial to his health and well-being," explained Tiffany DeWitt, RD, MBA, a registered dietitian specializing in infant nutrition for Abbott.
But how? Let's take a closer look at a few science-backed benefits of bonding with your little one.
Support Baby Immune System
"Skin-to-skin contact soon after birth promotes nursing and helps establish milk supply, and breast milk itself aids in building a healthy immune system," DeWitt said.
Research has also shown that kangaroo care — carrying babies and maintaining close body-to-body contact — is an effective way to successfully increase exclusive breastfeeding.
Related: Breastfeeding Resources
"Human milk is nourishing and supports development in many ways – one of those ways is by providing immune-supporting human milk oligosaccharides, or HMOs — prebiotics that make up about 10 percent of breast milk," DeWitt explained.
"They actually feed the good bacteria in the baby's gut, which helps support a healthy gut. This is important because about 70 percent of the immune system is found in the gut."
For mothers who aren't able to breastfeed exclusively, or even at all, there are formulas available now with HMOs. "Before, HMOs have only been available at significant levels in breast milk," said DeWitt, "but formulas like Similac® with 2'-FL HMO give parents feeding with infant formula the ability to provide an HMO to their babies."
Whether you are breast or formula feeding, the time immediately after birth is critical for passing along immunity-boosting bacteria from mom to baby. To help boost your baby's gut microbiota, get as much skin-to-skin contact as possible during those first 24 hours.
Support Cognitive Development
During the first year of life your baby is soaking in all the sounds and sights that surround them to help develop language and conversation skills as they grow. "During this critical time your baby's brain is building hundreds of thousands of neural connections per day—faster than any other time in life—setting the stage for learning, memory and cognition for the rest of their lives," explains Matthew Kuchan, Ph.D., a discovery scientist at Abbott.
Related: Cognitive development activities
Good nutrition and the importance of talking and stimulating your baby regularly cannot be overstated. The images words your baby sees and hears creates opportunities to grow those mental connections. In fact, research from Northwestern University shows that exposure to human speech within the first year of life encourages far more than just language development. It also promotes learning, social skills and far-reaching cognitive development.
Nutritional Needs Satisfied
"A close relationship with your baby means you're better positioned to learn your baby's cues for hunger or fullness and adjust your feeding appropriately," DeWitt said. Looking for signs of hunger — such as sucking on fists, crying or smacking lips — can help parents better time feedings to make sure their little ones are getting all of the nutrition they need for baby growth and development.
On the other hand, understanding signs that your baby is full — including biting or spitting out the nipple, or falling asleep — can help prevent overfeeding that could result in digestive issues.
If you have any concerns about feeding be sure to talk with your pediatrician or health care team.
And last but not least, support your baby with reinforcement, encouragement and positive communication, every step of the way. This, combined with bonding, will help the relationship between you and your little one grow over the years to come.