Stroking Babies 'Reduces Pain During Medical Procedures'

Peter Russell

December 18, 2018

Gently stroking a baby may reduce activity in the brain associated with painful experiences, a study has suggested.

The findings could help provide modest pain relief before medical procedures, said researchers, who were able to quantify the most effective speed of stroking for the maximum analgesic effect.

Pain and Brain Activity

The study, in the journal Current Biology , involved testing pain responses of 30 infants to heel lance tests by observing their response and detecting brain activity using electroencephalography (EEG).

Prior to the procedure, the researchers from the University of Oxford and Liverpool John Moores University either stroked the babies with a soft brush at 3 cm/s, at 30 cm/s, or applied no touch at all.

They found that the babies who were stroked at 3 cm/s showed lower pain-related EEG activity.

"We hypothesised that stroking would reduce pain-related brain activity, so we were pleased to see it," said senior author Rebeccah Slater, professor of paediatric science at the University of Oxford. "But we didn't see a reduction in how they reflex their limbs away from the heel lance. That could mean our intervention is perhaps causing a dissociation between limb movement and brain activity."

The researchers said that stroking at 3 cm/s activated a class of sensory neurons in the skin called C-tactile afferents, which have previously been shown to respond optimally to stroking at between 1-10 cm/s, and could lead to a reduction in pain perception in adults.

Clinical Implications

Touch-based techniques, such as infant massage, and 'kangaroo care' for premature infants, have been used to comfort babies during medical procedures, but the researchers wanted to assess whether the sensory response occurred in newborns or evolved over time.

"There was evidence to suggest that C-tactile afferents can be activated in babies and that slow, gentle touch can evoke changes in brain activity in infants," said Prof Slater.

To extend the clinical implications, the researchers plan to repeat their experiment using other medical procedures, and in premature babies, whose sensory pathways are still developing.

Prof Slater said: "Previous work has shown that touch may increase parental bonding, decrease stress for both the parents and the baby, and reduce the length of hospital stay. Touch seems to have analgesic potential without the risk of side effects."

Stroking modulates noxious-evoked brain activity in human infants, Gursul D et al, Current Biology. Paper.


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