Parent's skin-to-skin hug does ease a baby's pain, brain study suggests

  • British researchers monitored infants' brain activity while they had a painful heel lance to draw blood 
  • It was not possible to determine if infants that were held skin-to-skin by a parent felt less pain
  • Brain activity was, however, different in the infants that had skin-to-skin contact

Infants may feel less pain when held by a parent with skin-to-skin contact, a new UK study suggests.

"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 study co-author Lorenzo Fabrizi. He's with University College London in the department of neuroscience, physiology and pharmacology.

"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," Fabrizi said in a college news release.

Painful heel lance

The study included 27 infants, up to about three months old, who were born premature or at term at UCL Hospitals in Britain.

The researchers monitored the infants' brain activity while they had a painful heel lance to draw blood for testing.

During the procedure, the infants were either held by their mother skin-to-skin; held by their mother with clothing, or lying in a crib or incubator (most of those infants were swaddled).

The infants' initial brain response to the pain of the heel lance was the same. But as it triggered four to five waves of brain activity, the later waves of brain activity were lower among those babies who were held skin-to-skin.

The dampening of the delayed response to pain in the infants who had skin contact with their mothers "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," said study co-author and pain researcher Rebecca Pillai Riddell.

"Our findings support the notion that holding a newborn baby against your skin is important to their development," added Pillai Riddell, a professor in the department of psychology at York University in Toronto.

Image credit: Getty

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