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Babies born prematurely react differently to touch
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Premature babies lack the development on sensory experiences compared to those who stay inside the uterus until the full term of pregnancy.

Infants who are born early are exposed to dramatic events while those who stay until 40 weeks are still developing in amniotic fluid.

In addition, premature infants are often separated from their parents for a long period of time, undergo painful health procedures such as operations and ventilation, and also experience bigger effects on gravity on their skin and muscles.

This could potentially affect later physical and emotional development, – however regular physical contact from other human beings can counteract it.

Gentle puff research Nathalie Maitre of the Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Colombus and her colleagues have conducted a research: Gently stretched soft nets of 128 electrodes over the heads of 125 preterm and full-term babies, shortly before they were discharged from hospital. This research aimed to record how their brains correspond to gentle puffs of air on the skin. (The test covered full term babies of an average of 40 weeks, while premature babies were at an average of 36 weeks).

The research revealed that babies born between 24 and 36 weeks of gestation had reduced brain responses to touch compared to babies born between 38 and 42 weeks of gestation.

Nathalie Maitre recognizes that the receptors on the skin indeed got activated, however she says that “it does not mean that the brain is processing a response.” Furthermore, the painful treatments given to premature babies also reduces their response to touch. However, stronger brain responses were seen in those who have had more time in physical contact with parents or hospital staff during their stay in neonatal intensive care unit.

The miracle of gentle touch Although it is unclear if these responses seen in the test will be consistent on later stages of infant development, it is important to know that touch and hearing are the first senses to develop. The early months of human interaction, especially gentle touch, is very essential, as it is a form of beginnings of communication. This is because soft caresses activate a set of nerves called c-tactile fibres. These fibres have the potential to support the development of social brain.

A lack of gentle touches has also been shown to affect rat and canine behavior. Pups that are not licked grow up to be more aggressive and stressed. Moreover, there is also some evidence that people with autism may struggle to understand the social significance of touch.

One recent study found that more than 25 per cent of babies born before 27 weeks develop autism, compared with 1 per cent of full term babies.

“The most interesting finding is that supportive touch – and here I only counted skin-to-skin touch, not holding or rocking – really seemed to make a difference,” Maitre says. This provides hope for those whose babies are at the neotanal intensive care unit, since something as simple as a gentle touch can actually makes a difference in the baby.

A technique called “kangaroo care” has been linked to better weight gain and improved ability to regulate heart rate in premature babies.

Journal reference: Current Biology, [[DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2017.02.036]]

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