Gentle touch: Premature babies’ brain development may benefit from physical contact

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A gentle touch can make all the difference. Premature babies – who miss out on the sensory experiences of late gestation – show different brain responses to gentle touch from babies that stay inside the uterus until term. This could affect later physical and emotional development, but regular skin-to-skin contact from parents and hospital staff seem to counteract it.

[According to research done by Nathalie Maitre of the Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio,] babies born between 24 and 36 weeks of gestation were more likely to have reduced brain responses to gentle touch, compared with those born between 38 and 42 weeks.

While many premature babies experience pain, [Francis McGlone at Liverpool John Moores University, UK] thinks that it is exposure to gentle touch that really matters. 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.

“These preterm infants have a highly developed c-tactile system, and I believe that the way the brain wires up its sense of self is critically dependent on this system feeding information in,” McGlone says.

[The study can be found here.]

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