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How Gentle Touch Early On Shapes Babies' Brains For Life

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When a baby is born premature, it faces a lot of challenges. During the weeks that other babies are nestled safe in their mothers' wombs, premature babies are exposed not only to the harsh outer world, but often painful medical procedures. Recent research has shown that this can have a big impact on their brain development, and highlights how important it is to give them gentle skin-to-skin contact.

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Contact Is Care

For a 2017 study published in the journal Current Biology, Nathalie Maitre and her research team put soft nets of electrodes over the heads of 125 premature—or pre-term—and full-term babies to measure their brain responses. Then, they exposed each of them to either a gentle puff of air or a "sham" puff of air that acted as a control—that is, the same puff of air, but pointed away from the skin so the babies couldn't feel it. According to a press release, the researchers chose this sensation because it doesn't activate pain receptors. "If the infant brain can respond to this touch, babies can also learn how to tell the difference between different textures, for example the difference between their mother's skin and a hard object, or even their father's stubbly cheek and their sister's soft one."

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Pre-term babies born between 24 and 36 weeks showed less brain response to the gentle touch than the full-term infants who were born between 38 and 42 weeks. What's more, the pre-term babies who had endured more painful medical procedures had even less of a brain response, even though they had pain relief during the procedures. The good news? The premature babies who had spent more time in physical contact with people, whether their parents or staff, demonstrated stronger responses to touch than those who had less human contact.

Related: How Kangaroo Mother Care Keeps Preemies Close and Survival Rates High

Why It's Important

"There's mounting evidence that a set of nerves called c-tactile fibres are activated by soft caresses, and might provide a scaffold for the developing social brain," reports New Scientist. That means that a reduction in brain response might not just affect a baby's reaction to touch; it might have an impact on many different ways they interact with the world. Luckily, there's a growing trend toward skin-to-skin contact when caring for premature infants. A skin-to-skin method known as Kangaroo Mother Care is the default care for premature and low-weight babies in Colombia, and it's spreading throughout the globe.

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