Growth Curve | Science News

Be a Champion for Science

Get your subscription to

Science News when you join.

Growth Curve

The inexact science of raising kids

Laura Sanders

Growth Curve

Growth Curve

Touches early in life may make a big impact on newborn babies’ brains

electroencephalogram on an infant

A wiry electroencephalogram cap captures a baby’s brain response to a light puff of air to the hand. The type and amount of touches a newborn baby gets in the first days of life may shape later responses to touch perception, a study suggests.

Sponsor Message

Many babies born early spend extra time in the hospital, receiving the care of dedicated teams of doctors and nurses. For these babies, the hospital is their first home. And early experiences there, from lights to sounds to touches, may influence how babies develop.

Touches early in life in the NICU, both pleasant and not, may shape how a baby’s brain responds to gentle touches later, a new study suggests. The results, published online March 16 in Current Biology, draw attention to the importance of touch, both in type and number.  

Young babies can’t see that well. But the sense of touch develops early, making it a prime way to get messages to fuzzy-eyed, pre-verbal babies. “We focused on touch because it really is some of the basis for communication between parents and child,” says study coauthor Nathalie Maitre, a neonatologist and neuroscientist at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio.

Maitre and her colleagues studied how babies’ brains responded to a light puff of air on the palms of their hands — a “very gentle and very weak touch,” she says. They measured these responses by putting adorable, tiny electroencephalogram, or EEG, caps on the babies.

The researchers puffed babies’ hands shortly before they were sent home. Sixty-one of the babies were born early, from 24 to 36 weeks gestation. At the time of the puff experiment, they had already spent a median of 28 days in the hospital. Another group of 55 babies, born full-term, was tested in the three days after birth.

Full-term babies had a strong brain reaction to the hand puff. (This reaction was missing when researchers pointed the air nozzle away from the babies, a control that ruled out the effects of the puff’s sound.) Preterm babies had weaker brain reactions to the hand puff, the researchers found.

But the story doesn’t stop there. The researchers also looked at the number and type of touches — positive or negative — the preemies received while in the hospital.

Preemies who received a greater number of positive early touches, such as breastfeeding, skin-to-skin cuddles and massage, had stronger brain responses to the puffs than preemies who received fewer. More worryingly, preemies who had a greater number of negative touch experiences, including heel pricks, IV insertions, injections and tape removal, tended to have diminished brain responses to the puffs.

About a third of the premature babies in the study didn’t receive any positive touches that the researchers counted. Between birth and the time of the hand-puff experiment, the median number of positive touch experiences for the preemies in the study was 4. In contrast, the median number of painful procedures was 32.

The study turns up links, not cause. That means scientists can’t say whether the early touches, both positive and negative, are behind the differences in brain response. But it’s possible that early tactile experiences pattern the brain in important ways, Maitre says. If so, then the results have big implications.

Oftentimes, parents don’t have the luxury of snuggling their baby, particularly when parental leave is limited and babies are being treated far from home. Nurses, doctors and other medical professionals provide other forms of care. But anything parents, medical professionals or even volunteer cuddlers can do to shift the balance of positive and negative touches might encourage babies’ development, giving these smallest and newest of people the best start possible.

Human Development,, Health

See how bacterial blood infections in young kids plummeted after vaccines

By Laura Sanders 3:39pm, March 15, 2017
Rates of pneumococcal bacteremia in children plummeted by 95 percent after the introduction of vaccines against Streptococcus bacteria.
Human Development,, Health

Anesthesia for youngsters is a tricky calculation

By Laura Sanders 9:00am, March 6, 2017
Scientists, doctors and parents face uncertainty when it comes to anesthesia for babies.
Human Development,, Health

A preschooler’s bubbly personality may rub off on friends

By Laura Sanders 8:00am, February 23, 2017
Scientists caught personality shifts in preschoolers over a year by observing play.
Human Development,, Health

Birth may not be a major microbe delivery event for babies

By Laura Sanders 12:13pm, February 15, 2017
A study of mother-baby duos suggests that birth itself may not be the main event for getting microbes in and on babies.
Human Development,, Health

Little jet-setters get jet lag too

By Laura Sanders 1:00pm, February 6, 2017
Help young children fight jet lag with a few simple steps.
Health,, Human Development

A ban on screens in bedrooms may save kids’ sleep

By Laura Sanders 4:35pm, January 23, 2017
Screens are associated with worse sleep in kids, and not just because of their lights and noises.

Though complex, new peanut allergy guidelines are based on science

By Meghan Rosen 1:29pm, January 13, 2017
Unlike some past recommendations, new guidelines state that introducing babies to peanut-containing foods early is generally OK, with certain caveats.
Human Development,, Health,, Neuroscience

Motherhood might actually improve memory

By Laura Sanders 11:21am, December 21, 2016
Having a baby changes all sorts of things, including a mother’s brain.
Human Development

Database provides a rare peek at a human embryo’s first weeks

By Meghan Rosen 9:00am, December 6, 2016
A new 3-D atlas charts the growth of each and every organ in the developing human embryo, from the heart to the gut to the brain.
Human Development,, Neuroscience

What not to do when your kid tells a lie

By Laura Sanders 9:00am, November 11, 2016
We teach children that lying is naughty, but it’s actually a sign of good brain development.
Subscribe to RSS - Growth Curve