The Importance of a Mother’s Touch at Birth

(3BL Media/Justmeans) - An estimated 15 million babies are born too soon, every year. That is more than one in ten babies. Around a million new-borns die each year due to complications of preterm birth. Many survivors face a lifetime of disability, including learning, visual and hearing problems. In almost all countries with reliable data, preterm birth rates are increasing. This is why this latest study in Biological Psychiatry is important, because it highlights the benefits physical contact that babies have with their mothers is essential for their physical and psychological development and can be measured even ten years after birth.

Unfortunately, for some infants this contact is absent, as they are often neglected in hospitals and orphanages, and develop problems, ranging from depression to a more global failure to thrive. This research reminds us of the profound positive effects of the long-term consequences of maternal contact which influences the baby’s development of the brain and deepens the relationship between mother and child. Yet, what type of contact is needed?

Dr. Ruth Feldman, a professor at Bar-Ilan University, and her colleagues studied the impact of different levels of physical contact on prematurely born infants. The results show for the first time that providing maternal new-born skin-to-skin contact to premature infants in the neonatal period improves children's functioning ten years later. Specifically, the researchers compared standard incubator care to an intervention called “Kangaroo Care” (KC), which was originally developed to manage the risk for hypothermia in prematurely born babies in Colombia, where they struggled with a lack of access to incubators. This method uses the mother’s body heat to keep their babies warm.

In this latest research, the team asked 73 mothers to provide KC to their premature infants in the neonatal unit for one hour daily for 14 consecutive days. For comparison, the researchers also assessed 73 premature infants who received standard incubator care. Children were then followed seven times across the first ten years of their life and found that during the first half-year of life, mothers in the KC group were more sensitive, expressing more maternal behaviour toward their infants. Plus children six months to ten years in the KC group showed better cognitive skills and abilities. At ten years, these children who received maternal contact as infants had better neuroendocrine response to stress, more mature functioning of the autonomic nervous system and better cognitive control.

Premature birth is a major health concern worldwide and the inequalities in survival rates around the world are stark. In low-income settings, half of the babies born two months early die due to a lack of cost-effective care, such as warmth, breastfeeding support and basic care for infections. While modern medicine has substantially increased the number of surviving premature infants, many suffer long-term cognitive difficulties and problems. This study highlights that KC is one part of the solution. It is an easy-to-apply intervention with minimal cost and its long-term impact on child development, which should be integrated in the care-practices of premature infants throughout the world.

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