Plenty of previous research has linked skin-to-skin touch with
developmental benefits for both premature and full-term babies,
ranging from improved growth and sleep to better motor development.
Research has also tied breastfeeding and other forms of supportive
touch to less discomfort during from needle sticks and other painful
In the current study, researchers tested how 125 premature and
full-term infants responded to gentle touch. Overall, the preemies
were more likely than the full-term babies to have a reduced
response to this contact, the study found.
But preemies who had more gentle contact with parents and caregivers
had a stronger response to touch than the preterm infants who didn’t
get this type of support. The preterm babies who had more exposure
to painful medical procedures also had a reduced response to touch.
“Our findings add to our understanding that more exposure to these
types of supportive touch can actually impact how the brain
processes touch, a sense necessary for learning and social-emotional
connections,” said lead study author Dr. Nathalie Maitre of
Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio.
“What is surprising is that painful procedures which are known to
impact processing of pain in the brain also impact processing of
touch, in a negative way,” Maitre said by email.
Pregnancy normally lasts about 40 weeks, and babies born after 37
weeks are considered full term. In the weeks immediately after
birth, premature babies often have difficulty breathing and
digesting food. They can also encounter longer-term challenges such
as impaired vision, hearing, and cognitive skills as well as social
and behavioral problems.
The preemies in the study were born between 24 and 36 weeks
gestation, while the full-term infants arrived between 38 and 42
weeks. They all participated in the touch experiment before they
were discharged from the hospital where they were born.
Newborn development, especially in the first few months, is heavily
shaped by touch and sound, as the visual system is still very
immature, Maitre said. Touch is a way for infants to learn about
their surroundings and an early way to communicate with their
To evaluate how newborns respond to touch, researchers exposed all
of the infants in the study to a light puff of air and a “fake” puff
of air and measured their brain responses.
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Researchers chose a puff of air because it does not generate enough
pressure to activate any pain receptors, Maitre said. If the infant
brain can respond to this touch, babies can also learn how to tell
the difference between different textures, for example the
difference between their mother's skin and a hard object, or even
their father's stubbly cheek and their sister's soft one.
Preemies who were in the neonatal intensive care unit and spent more
time in gentle contact with parents and caregivers had a stronger
response to touch in the experiment than the preterm infants who
didn’t get this gentle contact, researchers report in Current
However, the more painful medical procedures those premature infants
had to endure, the less their brain responded to gentle touch later.
That was true despite the fact that the babies were given pain
medications and sugar to make those procedures easier to endure.
One limitation of the study is that researchers couldn’t control for
opiate use, because all infants undergoing painful procedures
received some type of analgesia, the authors note. Researchers also
lacked data on the intensity of pain infants might have experienced
during different treatments or tests.
Still, promoting gentle touch for all newborns - and especially
preemies - may help develop building blocks needed for cognition,
behavior and communication, the authors conclude.
SOURCE: http://bit.ly/2nAc6kv Current Biology, online March 16,
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