The Neuroscience of Birth – and the Case for Zero Separation

The greatest myth of all…

 “Mothers and babies should be cared for separately.”

“Mothers need their rest, babies need their observations. They also need to learn to be strong and independent”.

Zero Separation means exactly what it says. The neuroscience of Birth is totally mapped as far as studies in mammals are concerned, and especially primates, which are like us. It is oxytocin which makes the labour work, starting in the brain and working on the breasts and the uterus and the muscles and the mother’s stomach, as well as the foetal brain and body. Oxytocin levels in the brain are sky-high at the end of a vaginal birth: and for very good reason: once the baby is born the oxytocin contracts the uterus, protecting the mother from bleeding. The oxytocin is also powerful analgesic, even seems to make the mother forget the pain (amnesic). But it also works on the breasts and the mother’s vagal system, which controls her whole body. Most important, it starts the bonding process, which is two-way between mother and baby. There is a narrow window of some hours when vital changes take place in the baby’s brain circuits and the mothers’ brain. After birth it is skin-to-skin contact which specifically keeps the oxytocin high, and fires an emotional brain connection to the social brain, and bonding happens. Breastfeeding, and the smell of colostrum and mothers breasts also enhance colostrum, but only in the first day of life.

Separation switches off oxytocin almost immediately: they are mutual antagonists, they are biological opposites, opposing each other. Even a brief separation of some minutes is enough. There is no need to separate the baby to be weighed and identified and stabbed and blinded with ointment. All those things disrupt the essential oxytocin connections. Evidence for oxytocin working is self-attachment; the ability of the baby to latch on the breast in the first minutes of life. Just one minute of separation can make this take one hour instead of five minutes. A prolonged separation (some hours) will certainly impact bonding and breastfeeding.

The AAP has come out strongly in support of delaying all such procedures for six hours, to protect skin-to-skin contact and support breastfeeding.

There are situations when separation is inevitable and necessary. But knowing what harm it brings, we can work to keep the time as short as possible, and do better still by using fathers and other family members. And when the separation is not needed, the skin-to-skin contact and support for breastfeeding need to be even more strongly supported and emphasised to catch up.

You can read more on this in Dr Nils Bergman’s article in Curationis, the Journal of the Democratic Nursing Organisation of South Africa.