Dear new parents, especially those whose beloved baby must undergo painful medical procedures, take heart: your touch matters
more than you think.
“Touch is a critical building block of infant learning. It helps infants learn how to move, discover the world around them, and how to communicate. Touch allows them to learn these skills even before their vision is fully developed, and certainly before they learn verbal skills,” Nathalie Maitre of Nationwide Children's Hospital and Vanderbilt University Medical Center told ResearchGate
Together with her colleagues
, they measured the brain responses of 125 preterm and full-term infants by utilizing a soft EEG net. Previous research showed high rates of delays and neurodevelopmental impairments on preterm infants that can later on lead to further problems reacting to sensations in daily life.
“The earlier a baby is born, the more likely it is to have a smaller brain response to gentle touch when going home from the hospital,” Maitre said. However, they found that when preterm babies receive supportive touch or gentle contact from their parents or even just from health care provider while still in the hospital, their brains tend to respond more to touch by the time they go home.
Conversely, the more painful procedures premature infants experience, the less their brain responses to gentle touch later compared to term infants, even when they were given pain medications and sucrose to help alleviate pain. Meaning, babies’ early experience of painful procedures can affect their sense of gentle touch as well.
"Making sure that preterm babies receive positive, supportive touch such as skin-to-skin care by parents is essential to help their brains respond to gentle touch in ways similar to those of babies who experienced an entire pregnancy inside their mother's womb,” she added. "When parents cannot do this, hospitals may want to consider occupational and physical therapists to provide a carefully planned touch experience, sometimes missing from a hospital setting."