Researchers from the UK and Canada analysed the pain response in the brain of 27 infants, aged between 0-96 days, who were born premature or at term age at University College London Hospitals as they underwent heel lance - a standard but painful procedure used to collect blood samples.

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They recorded the infants’ brain activity using electrodes placed on their scalps as they underwent heel lance with the babies split into three groups: those lying in cot or incubator, those being held by their mothers while wearing clothing, and those being held by their mothers with skin-to-skin contact.

The infants’ initial brain responses to the pain were found to be the same in all three groups. However, the researchers found the later waves of brain activity were impacted by whether the baby was held skin to skin or with clothing.

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“We have found when a baby is held by their parent, with skin-on-skin contact, the higher-level brain processing in response to pain is somewhat dampened,” said senior author Dr Lorenzo Fabrizi, a neuroscientist at University College London. “The baby’s brain is also using a different pathway to process its response to pain.”

However, the scientists said they are unable to confirm whether the baby feels less pain during skin-to-skin contact, but added the findings, published in the European Heart Journal, ‘reinforce the important role of touch between parents and their newborn babies’.

“The slightly delayed response was dampened if there was skin contact with their mother, which suggests that parental touch impacts the brain’s higher-level processing,” said joint senior author, Prof Rebecca Pillai Riddell, of the department of psychology at York University in Canada.

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“The pain might be the same, but how the baby’s brain processes and reacts to that pain depends on their contact with a parent. Our findings support the notion that holding a newborn baby against your skin is important to their development," Prof Pillai Riddell added.

Reader Q&A: Could painkiller also kill pleasure?

Asked by: Henry Parr, Frome

A couple of recent studies at the Ohio State University suggested that painkillers can blunt feelings of pleasure as well as pain. The researchers found that one 1,000mg dose of paracetamol could reduce the pleasure experienced from looking at heart-warming pictures, or reading short stories about someone having good luck.

It may be that paracetamol affects signalling processes in the brain linked to mood. However, the studies had a limited scope – focusing on students in a lab – making it difficult to equate with real-life settings.

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Authors

Jason Goodyer
Jason GoodyerCommissioning editor, BBC Science Focus

Jason is the commissioning editor for BBC Science Focus. He holds an MSc in physics and was named Section Editor of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors in 2019. He has been reporting on science and technology for more than a decade. During this time, he's walked the tunnels of the Large Hadron Collider, watched Stephen Hawking deliver his Reith Lecture on Black Holes and reported on everything from simulation universes to dancing cockatoos. He looks after the magazine’s and website’s news sections and makes regular appearances on the Instant Genius Podcast.

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