Stimulating Inadequate Neonatal Respiration at Birth

William G. Wilkoff, MD

May 10, 2022

Recently, I encountered a study in Pediatrics that hoped to answer the question of whether there was any benefit to tactile stimulation in those nerve-rattling moments when a newborn didn't seem to take much interest in breathing: "Tactile stimulation in newborn infants with inadequate respiration at birth: A systematic review." Now there is a title that grabs the attention of every frontline pediatrician who has sweated through those minutes that seemed like hours in the delivery room when some little rascal has decided that breathing isn't a priority.

Of course, your great grandmother and everyone else knew what needed to be done – the obstetrician hung the baby by his or her ankles and slapped it on the bottom a couple of times. But you went to medical school and learned that was barbaric. Instead, you modeled the behavior of the residents and delivery room nurses who had more refined techniques such as heel flicking and vigorous spine rubbing. You never thought to ask if there was any science behind those activities because everyone did them.

Well, the authors of the article in Pediatrics, writing on behalf of the International Liaison Committee on Resuscitation and Neonatal Life Support Task Force, thought the time had come to turn over a few stones and see if tactile stimulation was a benefit in resuscitation. Beginning with 2,455 possibly relevant articles, they quickly (I suspect they would quibble with the "quickly" part) winnowed these down to two observational studies, one of which was rejected because of "critical risk of bias." The surviving study showed a reduction in tracheal intubation in infants who had received tactile stimulation. However, the authors felt that the "certainty of evidence was very low."

So, there you have it. Aren't you glad you didn't invest 15 or 20 minutes discovering what you probably had guessed already? You can thank me later.

You already suspected that it may not help. However, like any good physician, what you really wanted to know is whether were you doing any harm by heel flicking and spine rubbing. And I bet you already had an opinion about the answer to that question. During your training, you may have seen delivery room personnel who were clearly too vigorous in their tactile stimulation and/or too persistent in their heel flicking and spine rubbing when the next steps in resuscitation needed to be taken. That's the next study that needs to be done. I hope that study finds that tactile stimulation may not help but as long as it is done using specific techniques and within certain temporal parameters it does no harm.

I was never much for heel flicking. My favorite tactile stimulation was encircling the pokey infant's chest in my hand, gently compressing and then quickly releasing a couple of times. My hope was that by mimicking the birth process the sensors in the infant's chest wall would remind him it was time to breathe. That, and a silent plea to Mother Nature, worked most of the time.

Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics, including "How to Say No to Your Toddler." Other than a Littman stethoscope he accepted as a first-year medical student in 1966, Wilkoff reports having nothing to disclose. Email him at

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