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Brain Development in Newborns Improves With Gentle Touch

Brain Development in Newborns Improves With Gentle Touch

Written by Amrita Surendranath, B.Sc, M.Sc.
Article Reviewed by 
The Medindia Medical Review Team on March 16, 2017 at 10:58 PM
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  • Scientists have found that positive touch improves brain development among newborns
  • Some pre-term babies have to undergo complicated surgeries which limit their exposure to positive touch.
  • Gentle touch will aid in better response to touch after leaving the hospital and will improve brain development among preemies.

Touch therapy has for long been talked about as an important aspect in maintaining meaningful relationships and a recent study on newborns has identified how their brains respond to gentle touch. The study published in the journal Current Biology details the study conducted on over 125 newborns, including premature babies, and their responses. The findings of the study show that initial experiences of touch have a profound influence on the way their brains respond to touch after they go home from the hospital.

The study serves to reinforce the long held belief about the importance of gentle touch on the normal sensory development of newborns. The results of the study are vital for premature babies who are required to spend long period of time in hospitals before they are fit enough to go home. This initial period of hospitalization should include the right amount of care, in terms of gentle touch, which will help the baby experience better neuronal growth and respond positively to gentle touch at home.

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Brain Development in Newborns Improves With Gentle Touch

Dr. Nathalie Maitre from the Nationwide Children's Hospital and Vanderbilt University Medical Center said that ensuring positive as well as supportive touch like skin to skin care by parents would greatly help pre-term babies respond to touch like babies who were born full term. The additional period of stay at the hospital, connected to machines, could result in many babies missing out on the tender, loving touch that full term babies may be exposed to. The current study brings focus to the need for gentle touch among pre-term babies. The scientists involved in the study claim that, though it may not be possible for parents to provide this care during the period of stay at the hospital, as pre-term babies remain in the intensive care unit, where parent access is restricted, vital touch therapy could be provided by physical therapists or occupational therapists.

The Importance of Touch

125 premature babies were included in the study, born between 24 to 36 weeks and infants born full term between 38 to 42 weeks. The brain responses of the babies were measured using a soft EEG after a puff of air and after a 'fake' puff.

The study found that
  • Pre-term babies showed a lower brain response to touch than babies who were born full term.
  • Brain response among preterm babies was found to be increased when there was sufficient gentle contact with the baby when in the NICU.
  • Pre-term babies who were exposed to a lot of painful procedures showed lowered brain response to gentle touch. This held true even when sugar and pain medication were provided to the babies to ease the pain involved in the procedures.
Dr. Maitre said that an increase in positive experience while in the hospital could aid babies in a more typical response to touch even after they were taken home from the hospital. Apart from the positive experience, the study showed that painful procedures endured at the hospital affects their response to the sense of touch.

The study has resulted in Dr. Maitre and her colleagues designing innovative methods to ensure that there is positive touch when the babies are in the pre-term ICU. There are further studies being initiated to understand how the baby's brain responds to the sound of an individual's voice.

The study aids in highlighting the importance of positive touch, even among babies who are ailing and who are very small. This will help hospital establishments to encourage time with family, where parents can be asked to stroke the child, even when in the NICU.

Positive Touch

A positive touch can be a healing experience, both for the mother as well as the baby, especially when the baby needs to undergo prolonged treatment at the hospital. There are different types of interactions like when holding, handling, massage and kangaroo care.

The term positive touch was coined by Dr. Frederick Leboyer in his famous book 'Loving Hands' that detail the actions of Shantala, a young Indian mother, massaging her newborn in the streets of Calcutta.

†Positive touch would ensure
  • A sense of bonding between the mother and the child.
  • The early interaction with the newborn will help in the future development of the child.
  • In an NICU, the newborn may suffer from harsh environment and acute distress. Positive touch will help comfort the baby and will foster feelings of positivity, which will be reflected in neuronal development.
  • Apart from neuronal development, positive touch will help in improving social interaction of the baby.
The importance of positive touch among new born is well documented and the Indian tradition of massage has been highlighted in many studies. However, preterm babies in NICU are often considered too small and often miss out on good positive touch. This study serves to highlight the importance of consciously providing pre-term babies with gentle touch, even if they seem to be oblivious to the touch when in the hospital.

  1. Positive Touch and massage in the neonatal unit: a British approach - (http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=

Source: Medindia

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