Touch is the first of a newborn baby’s senses to mature – even ahead of hearing and sight. It’s one of the first things a mother does with her child – touching and holding her to create a bond. And when the baby cries, holding and stroking it are some of the first things parents do to try and calm it. It’s almost an unconscious reflex, but is there a scientific basis to why we stroke babies?

British scientists wanted to find out, and in order to do so, they devised two experiments.

In the first, 30 babies were split into three groups. The first group were slowly stroked before they got a little pin prick of pain, and their brain activity was monitored to see how they responded to that pain. In another group, they were stroked much faster, and in a third group, they weren’t stroked at all.

What the researchers found was that slow stroking significantly reduced how much pain the babies experienced. Fast stroking didn’t have the same effect, showing that the speed of the stroking is important to how it affects a baby’s perception of pain.

A second study tested whether this information can be applied during a hospital or doctor visit?

32 babies were split into two groups – one group was slowly stroked and another was not – just before they got a routine heel prick for blood collection.

Parents instinctively stroke their babies, and it turns out that can help reduce sensations of pain.

The researchers found there was a 40 per cent reduction in painful brain activity when the baby was stroked. That was the case even in a baby who had to have the heel prick test twice (and was stroked before both tests), suggesting that the effectiveness of the touch isn’t reduced the more it’s done.

Implications

How does the stroking work?

Well, the researchers say that touch of the skin in adults at the right speed activates nerves in our skin called “C-tactile afferents.”

Stimulation of these nerves has been shown in adults to reduce pain, and it’s suspected that a similar effect is occurring in the newborn babies. Previous research shows that parents don’t have to be taught to do this – they instinctively stroke at the right speed.

The authors say it could explain the popularity of touch-based caring for a child, like kangaroo care (where the baby is kept skin-to-skin with parent as much as possible), which have anecdotal evidence of benefits.

They’re interested in looking at how these results might influence care during other procedures for newborn babies.

Last Reviewed: 05/02/2020

© Norman Swan Medical Communications.



References

For reference: Gursul, et al. (2018). Stroking modulates noxious-evoked brain activity in human infants. Current Biology doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2018.11.014.