New data from researchers at the University of Ohio shows that premature babies show different brain responses to gentle touches than do their full-term counterpart babies.
The benefits of Kangaroo Mother Care (direct skin-to-skin contact) are well documented, and researchers continue to confirm the importance of skin-to-skin contact and gentle touch in counteracting some of the traumatic experiences that premature babies have.
Rebeccah Slater of the University of Oxford says that there is also substantial evidence that pain exposure during early life may have long-term impact on an infant’s brain development, so more and more researchers are looking to study how gentle touch shapes the brains of babies. This is much more difficult to study, however, because the brain’s response to light touch is such an exponentially smaller one than it is to pain.
Researchers from the Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio looked at the brain responses to gentle puffs of air on the skin of 125 preterm and full-term babies. Using gently stretched soft nets of 128 electrodes, the researchers found that babies born between 24-36 weeks of gestation were more likely to have reduced brain responses to the gentle touch, as compared to those born between 38-42 weeks.
Lead researcher, Nathalie Maitre, says that they found that activation on the receptors of the skin in response to touch doesn’t necessarily mean the brain is processing the response, or even processing appropriately. She found that the more painful a procedure a preterm baby had endured, the less their brains responded to gentle touch later on, even if there was appropriate ‘pain relief’ given during the procedures.
They found, though, that the brain responses to the gentle touch were stronger in the preemies who had spent more Kanga time with caregivers or hospital staff during their NICU stays, leading them to believe that the sensitive time periods during early infancy are key to what development comes next in the process.
It’s unclear whether the responses of the babies ever match up later in development, or to what extent the differences may have on their physical and social development. Maitre says that knowing that the responses of the first senses to develop (touch and hearing) is different in babies of different gestation is worrisome. According to Maitre, those responses are the beginnings of communication and reciprocity.
Francis McGlone of Liverpool John Moores University says that the differences in the gestation period responses are to be expected to some extent, and that though many premature babies experience pain, their exposure to gentle touch (like Kanga Care) can make a big difference.
A set of nerves called c-tactile fibers are activated by soft touch, and some believe this activation is a scaffold for the development of the brain. Preterm babies have highly developed c-tactile systems, and McGlone believes that the way the brain sets up its sense of self is significantly dependent upon the sensory information these c-tactile systems receive. More skin-to-skin contact can make a huge difference in that development.
Maitre says that they only counted skin-to-skin touch in the research — not holding or rocking — and found that the supportive touch made a difference in the babies’ responses.
That news is encouraging for NICU parents, who often feel out of control of what is happening with their babies. Knowing that they are playing a hugely critical role on their baby’s development every time they touch their child is highly empowering.