When a new life enters this world they can’t see all that well instead they experience the world through touch.
Now, researchers have found that a baby’s earliest experiences of touch has a lasting effect on the way their young brains respond to gentle touch when they go home.
The findings reported in Current Biology on March 16 highlight the importance of gentle touch for infants’ normal sensory development.
Researchers measured the brain responses of 125 infants–including babies who were born prematurely and others who went full-term and found that for preterm babies 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. Nathalie Maitre of Nationwide Children’s Hospital and Vanderbilt University Medical Center said “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.”
Maitre and her colleagues enrolled 125 babies born preterm at a gestational age of 24 to 36 weeks and full-term infants born at 38 to 42 weeks. Before those babies were discharged from the hospital, the researchers used a soft EEG net to measure the babies’ brain responses to a puff of air compared to a “fake” puff.
Generally speaking, those measurements showed that preterm babies were more likely than full-term babies to have a reduced brain response to gentle touch. Further analysis showed that the brain response to touch was stronger when babies in the NICU spent more time in gentle contact with their parents or healthcare providers. In contrast, the more painful medical procedures those premature infants had to endure, the less their brain responded to gentle touch later. That was true despite the fact that the babies were given pain medications and sugar to make those procedures easier to endure.
Based on the new findings, Maitre and her colleagues are now designing new ways to provide positive touch in the NICU. They’re also investigating how a baby’s brain response to touch interacts with their brain response to the sound of a person’s voice.
For new parents, including those whose young children must undergo difficult medical procedures, take heart: your touch matters than you know.