In recent years, a groundswell of empirical evidence has identified the importance of early skin-to-skin touch to optimize newborn babies’ neurodevelopmental outcomes later in life. Gentle skin-to-skin contact is especially important for the brain development of preterm infants who often spend their first days or weeks of life in neonatal intensive care units (NICUs), according to a new study published March 16 in the journal Current Biology.
For this study, perinatal researchers led by Nathalie Maitre of Nationwide Children's Hospital and Vanderbilt University Medical Center measured various brain responses of 125 infants using a soft and comfortable electroencephalogram (EEG) cap. Study cohorts included babies born preterm at a gestational age of 24 to 36 weeks and full-term infants born at 38 to 42 weeks.
Maitre et al. found that a baby's earliest experiences of being touched shape the somatosensory brain scaffolding linked to cognitive, perceptual, and social development. The researchers conclude that soothing and comforting physical human contact improves neurodevelopmental outcomes, especially for the 15 million babies born prematurely each year.
Perinatal somatosensory experiences that include skin-to-skin contact appear to be fundamental to long-term healthy brain development. In a statement to Cell Press, Maitre said,
"Making sure that preterm babies receive positive, supportive touch such as skin-to-skin care by parents is essential to help their brains respond to gentle touch in ways similar to those of babies who experienced an entire pregnancy inside their mother's womb.
When parents cannot do this, hospitals may want to consider occupational and physical therapists to provide a carefully planned touch experience, sometimes missing from a hospital setting."
The latest findings by Maitre and her team corroborate previous findings by other perinatal researchers on the benefits of skin-to-skin contact and "Kangaroo Care" (skin-to-skin inside the pouch of the parent's shirt for at least one hour) whenever possible. Kangaroo Care (also referred to as "KC") is a caregiving method originally developed to manage the risk for hypothermia in premature babies born in Columbia, where there is a shortage of incubators and mothers or fathers often use their own body heat to keep their babies warm.
The initial findings of an ongoing study, "Parental Stress Before and After Skin-to-Skin Contact in the NICU," were presented in 2015. The researchers found that small doses of intimate snuggling between mothers and babies can go a long way towards reducing maternal stress levels after a preterm birth. Unfortunately, this early tactile bonding is often disrupted by the stringent medical requirements of a neonatal intensive care unit.
"We already know there are physiological benefits in the newborns when they are held skin-to-skin, such as stabilization of heart rate, breathing patterns and blood oxygen levels, gains in sleep time and weight, decreased crying, greater breastfeeding success and earlier hospital discharge.
Now we have more evidence that skin-to-skin contact can also decrease parental stress that can interfere with bonding, health and emotional wellness, and the interpersonal relations of parents, as well as breastfeeding rates. This is a simple technique to benefit both parent and child that perhaps should be encouraged in all NICUs."
Kangaroo Care has become increasingly popular for newborn infants, especially preterm or low birth weight babies. During KC an infant is held skin-to-skin against the chest of an adult, usually one of the parents. Ideally, kangaroo care begins immediately after birth and continues as regularly as possible during postnatal development. Even short periods of KC have been found to be beneficial for both babies and parents on a variety of levels—especially during the first 28 days of life.
In 2014, a study by Dr. Ruth Feldman, Professor at Bar-Ilan University, and colleagues reported that maternal-preterm skin-to-skin contact enhanced prematurely born infants' physiological organization and cognitive control throughout the first 10 years of life. The findings of this study were published in the journal Biological Psychiatry.
Premature births are a major health concern worldwide. Although modern medicine has substantially increased the number of surviving premature infants, many suffer long-term cognitive difficulties and abnormalities in neurobiological systems. The latest research suggests that time spent in NICUs—where preemies are often deprived of gentle, loving, skin-to-skin contact—may disrupt stress responses and neuronal circuitry.
Based on the latest empirical evidence, Nathalie Maitre and colleagues are in the process of fine-tuning fresh ways to safely facilitate more skin-to-skin contact in NICUs. They're also investigating the interplay between a baby's brain response to touch and his or her brain response to the soothing sound of a person's voice. Stay tuned for more cutting-edge research on this topic.
Nathalie L. Maitre, Alexandra P. Key, Olena D. Chorna, James C. Slaughter, Pawel J. Matusz, Mark T. Wallace, Micah M. Murray. The Dual Nature of Early-Life Experience on Somatosensory Processing in the Human Infant Brain. Current Biology. (2017) http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2017.02.036
Ruth Feldman, Zehava Rosenthal, Arthur I. Eidelman. Maternal-Preterm Skin-to-Skin Contact Enhances Child Physiologic Organization and Cognitive Control Across the First 10 Years of Life. Biological Psychiatry, 2014; 75 (1): 56 DOI: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2013.08.012
Judith Ann Moran-Peters, Cheryl Robyn Zauderer, Susan Goldman, Jennifer Baierlein, April Eve Smith. A Quality Improvement Project Focused on Women's Perceptions of Skin-to-Skin Contact After Cesarean Birth. Nursing for Women's Health, 2014; 18 (4): 294 DOI: 10.1111/1751-486X.12135
D. Wolke, S. Eryigit-Madzwamuse, T. Gutbrod. Very preterm/very low birthweight infants' attachment: infant and maternal characteristics. Archives of Disease in Childhood - Fetal and Neonatal Edition, 2013; DOI: 10.1136/archdischild-2013-303788