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Babies have reduced pain response with skin-to-skin contact

A newborn’s response to pain can be reduced when they are held by a parent with skin-to-skin contact. In a new study from University College London, researchers found that when babies were being held through clothing during a painful medical procedure, there was more brain activity in response to the pain.

“We have found when a baby is held by their parent, with skin-on-skin contact, the higher-level brain processing in response to pain is somewhat dampened. The baby’s brain is also using a different pathway to process its response to pain,” said Dr. Lorenzo Fabrizi.

“While we cannot confirm whether the baby actually feels less pain, our findings reinforce the important role of touch between parents and their newborn babies.”

The study was focused on 27 infants between 0-96 days old at University College London Hospitals. The researchers measured the babies’ response to a painful yet clinically required blood test. Brain activity was recorded with EEG electrodes placed on the scalp.

The infants were held against their mother’s chest either wearing clothing or only a diaper for skin-to-skin contact. The blood test triggered a series of four to five waves of brain activity. 

The study revealed that the initial brain response to the pain was the same, but the later waves of activity were impacted by whether the baby was held skin-to-skin or with clothing.

“The slightly delayed response was dampened if there was skin contact with their mother, which suggests that parental touch impacts the brain’s higher level processing. The pain might be the same, but how the baby’s brain processes and reacts to that pain depends on their contact with a parent,” explained Professor Rebecca Pillai Riddell. “Our findings support the notion that holding a newborn baby against your skin is important to their development.”

The researchers noted that the babies’ brain responses were not only dampened in the skin-to-skin group, but also followed a different neural pathway.

“Newborn babies’ brains have a high degree of plasticity, particularly those born preterm, and their development is highly dependent on interactions with their parents,” said Dr. Laura Jones. “Our findings may lend new insights into how babies learn to process threats, as they are particularly sensitive to maternal cues.”

“Parents and clinicians have known for many years how important skin to skin care is for babies in NICU,” said Dr. Judith Meek. “Now we have been able to demonstrate that this has a solid neurophysiological basis, which is an exciting discovery.”

The study is published in the European Journal of Pain.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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