It is very important that premature babies being cared for in Neonatal Intensive Care Units (NICU) receive plenty of caring and supportive touch experiences and as few painful procedures as possible, as these events can significantly impact brain development, according to new research published in the journal Current Biology.
Disruptions in the normal development of the somatosensory system — a baby’s first sensory system that perceives temperature, the body’s position in space, movement, and all degrees of touch, from the lightest to most painful — can affect the child’s socio-emotional development.
Healthy sensory processing allows young children to learn from their experiences, and provides the foundation for developing higher-level perceptual and cognitive abilities.
“Parents should know that every minute they hold their baby counts,” says first author Nathalie Maitre, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of Pediatrics, medical director of the NICU Follow-up Program and a principal investigator in the Center for Perinatal Research at Nationwide Children’s Hospital.
“Touch is a critical building block of infant learning,” says Maitre, adjunct professor of Hearing and Speech Sciences and former assistant professor of Pediatrics at Vanderbilt. “It helps babies learn how to move their bodies, how to discover the world around them and how to communicate with their families.”
The findings show that exposure to painful procedures can impact brain development even when sedatives and analgesics are used.
“Until new research can prove which medications work at preventing these changes in brain function, we need to focus on effective non-pharmacological alternatives,” said Mark Wallace, Ph.D., dean of the Graduate School at Vanderbilt and the study’s co-senior author with Micah Murray, Ph.D., of the University of Lausanne.
Wallace says that “it is absolutely essential to minimize exposure to painful procedures that infants can often experience during hospitalizations.”
For the study, the researchers compared the cortical responses to light touch among 125 premature and full-term infants at Vanderbilt. They found that preterm infants exhibited decreased responses to light touch when they were discharged from the NICU compared to full-term infants and that the decreases were greatest among the most premature.
However, when these NICU babies were given more supportive touch experiences, including skin-to-skin care and breastfeeding, their brains responded more strongly to light touch.
Promoting optimal development and function may help keep these newborns’ brains on track to establish the sensory building blocks of cognition, behavior, and communication, the researchers concluded.
The study was conducted by an international research team from Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, Monroe Carell’s Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt in Nashville, Tennessee, and Lausanne University in Switzerland.