Special Feature

The powerful touch

Posted on March 25, 2017

For many adults, seeing a baby induces that feeling of wanting to touch and hold him. They say this is because cuddling babies makes one feel loved. But the benefits of it are far greater for these young infants, as early touch does not just help them make sense of their new surroundings. It also, as various researches have shown, is paramount in their development.

An article posted on drgreene.com said that infant touch has significant advantages to many systems of the body including the digestive, circulatory, respiratory, nervous and endocrine. It cites, for instance, what Dr. Kathryn Barnard, a professor of nursing at the University of Washington, said that infants who were held more exhibited superior cognitive ability as long as eight years later.

Other studies, however, have tended to dig much deeper.

One study, published by scientific journal Current Biology this month, revealed that touches linger in babies’ brains, remaining there like a footprint that influences the way they respond to gentle touch later on. This, it added, may even have special impacts for preterm babies.

“When controlling for prematurity and analgesics, supportive experiences (e.g., breast-feeding, skin-to-skin care) are associated with stronger brain responses, whereas painful experiences (e.g., skin punctures, tube insertions) are associated with reduced brain responses to the same touch stimuli. Our results shed crucial insights into the mechanisms through which common early perinatal experiences may shape the somatosensory scaffolding of later perceptual, cognitive, and social development,” it said in its summary.

“Our findings add to our understanding that more exposure to these types of supportive touch can actually impact how the brain processes touch, a sense necessary for learning and social-emotional connections,” Dr. Nathalie Maitre, lead author of the study, said in a recent Reuters interview. “What is surprising is that painful procedures which are known to impact processing of pain in the brain also impact processing of touch, in a negative way,” she added.

The study drew their findings from testing the responses of 125 preterm (24 to 36 weeks’ gestational age) and full-term (38 to 42 weeks’ gestational age) babies to light touch. It found that preterm infants were more likely to have a reduced response to gentle touch than the full-term ones. However, the preemies who had more gentle contact with parents or caregivers gave stronger response to touch than those who did not have the same physical support and those who were exposed to painful medical procedures.

Meanwhile, a study published in Pediatrics last December looked into the significance of so-called “kangaroo care” or holding premature babies skin-to-skin with his mother or a caregiver for as many hours as possible.

The researchers followed the participants of its randomized controlled trial conducted in Colombia from 1993 to 1996. These participants, now young adults, were either preterm or had a low birthweight (less than five pounds). Out of the 716 patients originally enrolled in the clinical trial, researchers were able to follow up with 264 and analyze their health, social function, and brain structure.

It found that kangaroo mother care (KMC) had significant, long-lasting social and behavioral protective effects 20 years after the intervention.

“The effects of KMC at one year on IQ and home environment were still present 20 years later in the most fragile individuals, and KMC parents were more protective and nurturing, reflected by reduced school absenteeism and reduced hyperactivity, aggressiveness, externalization, and socio-deviant conduct of young adults. Neuroimaging showed larger volume of the left caudate nucleus in the KMC group,” said the study. It thus suggested that the 18 million infants born each year should be given such health care intervention.

“Our long-term findings should support the decision to introduce KMC to reduce medical and psychological disorders attributable to prematurity and [low birthweight],” it concluded.