By Clare Pain, Australian Doctor

Ever wondered why stroking babies seems to calm them? Well, a team of UK researchers has just found out.

Their study shows that stroking babies at the right speed can reduce their pain response to heel pricks, and they think they know why it works.

The findings could lead to better pain relief for babies before medical procedures, they say.

In adults there is a class of C fibre sensory neurons in hairy skin that responds to gentle touch.

Stroking at a rate between 1 and 10cm/s stimulates these neurons optimally and previous research has shown this reduces the sensation of pain in adults.

These same fibres may lie behind the soothing effect of stroking in babies, suggest the researchers, led by professor of paediatrics, Professor Rebeccah Slater from the University of Oxford.

In their study, 30 newborns who needed heel-lancing for blood were randomly allocated to either stroking at a rate within the C fibre range (3cm/s), much faster stroking (30cm/s) or no stroking at all before their heels were pricked.

The pain response as measured by EEG activity was 60% lower in babies stroked at 3cm/s compared with those who were not stroked at all.

In contrast, babies stroked at the rapid rate did not show a lowered pain response.

“Touch seems to have analgesic potential without the risk of side effects,” said Professor Slater.

The findings could explain anecdotal reports of the efficacy of infant massage and the use of ‘kangaroo care’, where premature babies are held close to a parent’s skin, the researchers suggested.

“Parents intuitively stroke their babies at this optimal velocity. 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,” Professor Slater said.


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