Why gently stroking your baby's skin could help lessen the pain felt during a blood test

New research reveals stroking babies could help them cope better with pain [Photo: Getty]
New research reveals stroking babies could help them cope better with pain [Photo: Getty]

When your baby is crying you’ll try anything to help soothe them, but new research has revealed that gently stroking babies can help reduce their pain.

The study, by University of Oxford and Liverpool John Moores University and published in the journal Current Biology, found that the action reduces activity in infants brain that is associated with painful experiences.

The research team assessed the pain responses newborns had to early years procedures such as blood tests by observing their behaviour and detecting their brain activity using electroencephalography (EEG), a technique that measures tiny bursts of electrical activity from the surface of the brain.

Half of the babies had their skin gently stroked with a soft brush just before the blood test and that group showed 40% less pain activity in their brain.

From their research scientists were also able to determine that stroking has an “optimal velocity” of 3cm per second, which helped reduced sensations of pain in the newborns.

Parents intuitively stroke their babies at this optimal velocity,” senior author Rebeccah Slater, professor of paediatric science at the University of Oxford told Independent.

“We hypothesised that stroking would reduce pain-related brain activity, so we were pleased to see it.

“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.”

Stroking babies could help reduce their pain [Photo: Getty]
Stroking babies could help reduce their pain [Photo: Getty]

Researchers now believe the findings could be incorporated into advice for new parents and for medical staff in neonatal units.

Study authors also believe the research could help explain why touch-based parenting techniques such as infant massage and “kangaroo care”, which involves premature babies being held close to the skin, can help improve bonding.

Stroking has previously been revealed to activate a class of sensory neurons in the skin called C-tactile afferents, which have been shown to reduce pain in adults.

But it wasn’t clear whether babies would have the same response to stroking or whether the effect developed 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,” Professor Slater continued.

“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.”

Now study authors are hoping to study the pain-reducing effect of stroking in premature babies.

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