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The painkiller that calms children without any side effects

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Hundreds of research have shown that parent-child contact is critical for proper development. Skin-to-skin contact is now being promoted by scientists as a strategy to decrease a baby’s pain response in the brain – What do they say?

A recent study headed by academics at UCL and York University, Canada, found that skin-to-skin contact with a parent lessens how much a newborn baby’s brain responds to a painful medical shot.

The researchers write in the European Journal of Pain that there was higher activity in the brains of newborn babies in response to pain when a parent held them through clothing than without.

Joint senior author, Dr Lorenzo Fabrizi says “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.

“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.”

At University College London Hospitals, the researchers studied 27 children aged 0-96 days who were either prematurely or at term. The researchers wanted to see how they reacted to a painful but medically necessary heel lance (blood test). EEG (electroencephalography) electrodes were implanted on the scalp to capture brain activity.

The babies were either skin-to-skin with their mothers (wearing diapers against their mothers’ chests), held by their mothers with clothing, or laid in a cot or incubator (most of these babies were swaddled).

The researchers discovered that the first brain response to the pain was the same, but that because the heel lance induced a sequence of four to five waves of brain activity, whether the newborn was carried skin-to-skin or with clothing affected the later waves of activity.

Joint senior author, Professor Rebecca Pillai Riddell adds: “The slightly delayed response was dampened if there was skin contact with their mother, which 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.

“Our findings support the notion that holding a newborn baby against your skin is important to their development.”

The brains of the babies who remained in the cot or incubator reacted less strongly to the pain than those who were clothed, but the researchers believe this is due to the fact that the babies were not disturbed by being picked up before the procedure, or because the sensitive, individualized treatment care they received was successful.

The babies’ behavior did not differ significantly between the groups, however, the skin-to-skin group had slightly lower facial expressions and heart rate responses. Other research has revealed that skin-to-skin contact with a parent affects a child’s behavior and may minimize how intensely they react to pain, but those studies did not go into the brain reaction.

In the present study, the babies’ brain responses were not only muted, but also followed a different cerebral pathway in the skin-to-skin group.

“Newborn babies’ brains have a high degree of plasticity,” says First author, Dr Laura Jones, “particularly those born preterm, and their development is highly dependent on interactions with their parents. Our findings may lend new insights into how babies learn to process threats, as they are particularly sensitive to maternal cues.”

“Parents and clinicians have known for many years how important skin to skin care is for babies in NICU,” adds Co-author Dr Judith Meek, “Now we have been able to demonstrate that this has a solid neurophysiological basis, which is an exciting discovery.”

Image Credit: Getty

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