Science continues to back the benefits of skin-to-skin contact and in babies, and new research confirms that being held by a parent in painful situations can help dampen a newborn baby’s brain response to the pain.
Why we ever thought that babies ‘don’t feel pain,’ makes us cringe. Never has the inability to express feeling meant the feeling didn’t necessarily exist, but for generations, many mamas were led to believe all those pokes and jabs and the doctor’s offices didn’t mean much to the baby as they didn’t really even respond to the pain, but the ‘surprise of the jab.’
Thankfully, science continues to debunk that myth, and a new study led by researchers at UCL and York University, Canada shows that parent skin-to-skin contact reduces how strongly a baby responds to painful medical jabs and procedures.
The research team found that there was more brain activity in newborns who were reacting to pain when the parent was holding them while they were wearing clothing than when they were not.
Dr. Lorenzo Fabrizi is with UCL Neuroscience, Physiology and Pharmacology and is a Joint Senior Author of the research. He said that they found when a baby was held by their parent and allowed skin-on-skin contact, the baby’s brain processing in response to the pain they were subjected to was dampened. They found that the baby’s brain also used different neural pathways to process response to pain.
Fabrizi said they can’t obviously confirm or deny the baby actually feels less pain, but their findings reinforce the very important role of touch between newborn babies and their parents. (And all the attachment parents beg to say it louder and louder!)
They looked at 27 babies who were between the ages of 0-96 days-old. The babies varied in whether they were born prematurely or at term age. The research team monitored their responses to the traditional ‘heel lance’ which is a blood test done by pricking the baby’s heel to test for various things, clotting ability included.
They measured the brain activity with electroencephalography (EEG) electrodes placed on their scalps in the University College London hospitals they were patients in.
Some babies were held by their mothers with skin-to-skin contact (baby only wearing a diaper and laying against their mother’s chest) while others were held by their mothers while they were wearing clothing. Others still were in their cots or incubator and mostly swaddled.
While the researchers found the initial response of the babies’ brain to pain was the same, the heel lance brought about four or five waves of brain activity, and they noted that the waves of activity correlated with whether the baby was held skin-to-skin or with clothing.
Professor Rebecca Pillai Riddell with York University’s Department of Psychology was also a Joint Senior Author. She said that they noted a slightly delayed response as dampened if the baby had skin contact with its mother, suggesting that a parental touch impacts the brain’s higher-level processing. Riddell said that while the pain might be the same for every baby, how the baby’s brain processes and reacts to it depended on the contact it had with its parent.
All to say that the findings again clearly support that skin-to-skin contact and holding a newborn against your skin is extremely beneficial to their development.
They found the brains of babies who were in cots or incubators also reacted less strongly to the pain than those who were in clothing, but the researchers believe that may be because there was no disruption in their current brain pattern by being picked up before the procedure or even due to the success of the very sensitive and highly individualized care they were already receiving due to their conditions.
There was no significant behavior difference between the groups, though the babies who had skin-to-skin contact showed slightly delayed responses to the prick with their facial expressions and heart rates. Other studies have shown that skin-to-skin contact can affect a baby’s behavior and may reduce the strength of pain reaction, but those studies never looked at a the actual brain response with EEG.
Dr. Laura Jones is with UCL Neuroscience, Physiology & Pharmacology and was a first author of the study. She said that they also found that not only did the skin-to-skin group babies have dampened pain responses, but their brains also followed different neural pathways than did their study counterparts. Dr. Jones said that there is a high degree of plasticity in a newborn’s brain–particularly in those born prematurely–and their proper development is highly dependent upon their interactions with their parents. This research may offer new insight into how babies figure out how to process threats, being that they seem to be very sensitive to maternal cues.
Dr. Judith Meek is with University College London Hospitals and was a co-author of the research. She said that it’s been widely known for many years that skin-to-skin care is critical for NICU babies. But now, this research shows the benefit most likely exists in a similar way for all babies, and could go a long way into how we approach raising infants.
So the next time someone tells you that you hold that baby too much, tell them you’re building stronger pain responses and helping develop functional neural pathways in your child. Science says so.
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