Skin-to-skin contact between parents and infants reduces experience of pain during a jab

Cuddling a newborn DOES soothe them: Skin-to-skin contact between parents and infants reduces a baby’s pain, study finds

  • Researchers monitored the brain activity of babies undergoing a blood test
  • They had some held skin-to-skin, some with clothes and others in an incubator 
  • Those held skin-to-skin experienced a dampened reaction to the painful jab
  • Experts say this study shows that skin-to-skin contact helps babies when in pain

Holding a newborn baby close to your skin while they have an injection does help to reduce their experience of pain, according to a new study.

Researchers from UCL and York University, Canada measured the response to pain in the brains of 27 infants from newborn to 96 days old using electrodes on their head.

Infants were given a medically necessary heel lance blood test while parents held them close to their chest with and without clothing. 

There was more activity in the brains of newborn babies in reaction to the pain when a parent was holding them through clothing, than without clothing, the team found.  

Co-author Dr Judith Meek from University College London Hospitals where the tests were carried out said the findings prove something parents have known for years. 

There was more activity in the brains of newborn babies in reaction to the pain when a parent was holding them through clothing, than without clothing, the team found. Stock image

For the study babies were either held by their mother skin-to-skin, held by their mother with clothing, or lying in a cot or incubator while swaddled. 

Joint senior author, Dr Lorenzo Fabrizi from UCL said the higher-level brain processing in response to pain was dampened when held skin-to-skin.

‘The baby’s brain is also using a different pathway to process its response to pain,’ Fabrizi said, adding they can’t confirm if the baby actually feels less pain, but the study does reinforce the importance of touch between parents and infants.

The initial brain response to the pain was the same regardless of how the baby was being held, but over time this was dampened with skin-to-skin contact.

Joint senior author, Professor Rebecca Pillai Riddell from York University, Canada, said this delayed response suggests parental touch impacts 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,’ Pillai explained.

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

The brains of the babies that remained in the cot or incubator also reacted less strongly to the pain than those held in clothing, but the researchers say that may be because the babies were not disrupted by being picked up before the procedure.

It could also be due to the success of the sensitive, individualised care they were provided as a result of requiring incubation.

The babies’ behaviour was not significantly different between the groups, although the skin-to-skin group did exhibit slightly reduced responses in terms of facial expression and heart rate. 

Other studies have found that skin-to-skin contact with a parent does affect baby behaviour, and may reduce how strongly they react to pain.

However, this is the first study to investigate the actual brain response to pain. 

Infants were given a medically necessary heel lance blood test while parents held them close to their chest with and without clothing. Stock image

Infants were given a medically necessary heel lance blood test while parents held them close to their chest with and without clothing. Stock image

In the current study, the babies’ brain responses were not only dampened in the skin-to-skin group, but also followed a different neural pathway.

First author, Dr Laura Jones from UCL said newborn babies’ brains have a high degree of plasticity – particularly when they are born before term.

Jones said 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.’

Co-author Dr Judith Meek from University College London Hospitals where the tests were carried out said the findings reflect something parents have known for years.

‘Now we have been able to demonstrate that this has a solid neurophysiological basis, which is an exciting discovery.’

The findings have been published in the European Journal of Pain

WHAT IS PAIN? A COMPLEX MIX INVOLVING OUR WHOLE BEING

Health professionals use different terms for different types of pain.

  • Short-term pain is called Acute Pain. An example is a sprained ankle.
  • Long-term is called Persistent or Chronic Pain. Back trouble or arthritis are examples.
  • Pain that comes and goes is called Recurrent or Intermittent Pain. A tooth ache could be one.

Pain signals use the spinal cord and specialised nerve fibres to travel to our brain.  

Pain is never ‘just in the mind’ or ‘just in the body’ – it is a complex mix involving our whole being.

Source: British Pain Society  

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