The best medicine for babies is in the palm of your hand – literally

by Freya Lucas

December 20

Researches from the University of Oxford have found that gently stroking a baby reduces activity in the brain which is associated with painful experiences. The results, which have been published in the journal, Current Biology, suggest that light brushing could provide pain relief for babies.

 

Although the research speaks most often about the technique being employed by parents, those working with children under one year of age are likely to find the results of use in their daily work in early childhood education and care (ECEC).

 

“Parents intuitively stroke their babies at this optimal velocity (said to be 3 cm per second)” said senior author Rebecca Slater, Professor of paediatric neuroscience at University of Oxford.

 

“If we can better understand the neurobiological underpinnings of techniques like infant massage, we can improve the advice we give to parents on how to comfort their babies.”

 

Professor Slater and her team measured newborn pain responses to medically necessary interventions, by observing their behaviour and detecting brain activity using electroencephalography (EEG). For half of the babies, a scientist stroked their skin gently with a soft brush immediately before the procedure.

 

Professor Slater said the babies who received light stroking touch showed lower pain related EEG activity, but still reflexively moved their limbs away from the source of pain.

 

The study found that the optimal pain-reducing stroking speed of approximately 3 cm per second is the same frequency that activates sensory neurons in the skin called C-tactile afferents, which have previously been shown to reduce pain in adults. Up until the research, it was unclear whether this sensory response occurred in newborns or developed over time.

 

The study also provides evidence to suggest that C-tactile afferents can be activated in babies, and that slow, gentle touch can evoke changes in brain activity in infants, Professor Slater said.

 

Describing the pain-reducing power of touch as “clinically useful”, the study provides anecdotal evidence of the soothing power of touch-based interventions such as infant massage and kangaroo care.

 

Professor Slater and her research team plan to repeat the experiment with premature babies, whose sensory pathways are still developing.

 

“Previous work has shown that touch may increase parental bonding, decrease stress for both the parents and the baby, and reduce the length of hospital stay,” said Professor Slater. “Touch seems to have analgesic potential without the risk of side effects.”

 

The full paper, Stroking modulates noxious-evoked brain activity in human infants, can be read in Current Biology.

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