Skin-to-skin contact ‘can reduce pain response in a newborn's brain'

Researchers say the findings reinforce the important role of touch between parents and their babies.

Skin-to-skin contact with a parent reduces how strongly a newborn’s brain responds to a painful medical procedure, scientists have found.

Researchers analysed the pain response in the brain as the infants underwent heel lance, a standard but painful procedure used to collect blood samples.

They found that babies’ brains showed higher levels of activity in reaction to the pain when the mother was holding them while wearing clothing, compared to placing them on bare chest.

However, the scientists said they are unable to confirm whether the baby feels less pain during skin-to-skin contact, but added the findings, published in the European Heart Journal, “reinforce the important role of touch between parents and their newborn babies”.

Dr Lorenzo Fabrizi, a neuroscientist at University College London, who is also a senior author on the study, said: “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.”

The study involved 27 infants, aged between 0-96 days, who were born premature or at term age at University College London Hospitals.

The researchers recorded brain activity with electrodes placed on the scalp as the newborns underwent heel lance.

The infants were either held by their mother skin to skin, held by their mother with clothing, or were lying in a cot or incubator.

The initial brain response to the pain was found to be the same in the three groups.

However, the researchers found the later waves of brain activity were impacted by whether the baby was held skin to skin or with clothing.

Joint senior author, professor Rebecca Pillai Riddell, of the department of psychology at York University in Canada, said: “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.”

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