No parent will ever forget the first time they hug their baby, and research suggests those earliest baby hugs boost brain responses and can help offset other traumas newborns may experience.
A survey of 125 full-term and premature newborns at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, found early, gentle displays of affection from parents and caregivers have lasting effects on how baby brains react to gentle touch. That means early exposure to hugs could help pre-term babies experience affection as pleasant rather than overwhelming while also stimulating positive brain responses.
Anyone who has been on a maternity ward in the last decade has no doubt heard about the benefits of kangaroo care and skin-to-skin contact, but this new information proves those hours spent cuddling on mom or dad's chest can even counteract negative experiences among vulnerable premature babies.
Researchers used a soft EEG net stretched over the babies' heads to measure brain responses. The little ones were touched with gentle puff of air just before they were sent home from the hospital. The full-term babies experienced a stronger brain response than their premature peers, and, of the premature babies, those who'd had to endure painful medical procedures shortly after birth had the weakest brain reactions.
The researchers were surprised to find that a preemie's perception of touch can be affected by early medical procedures (as they often receive pain medications). But the good news is that hugs can help counteract the negative experiences.
The survey found the more supportive touch a premature baby received from their parents or hospital staff, the stronger their brain responses were.
According to one of the authors, Dr. Nathalie Maitre, the survey indicates skin-to-skin care is absolutely vital for babies spending a long stretch of time in neonatal intensive care units. When a baby is stuck in the NICU, mom and dad aren't always available for hugging duty.
"When parents cannot do this, hospitals may want to consider occupational and physical therapists to provide a carefully planned touch experience, sometimes missing from a hospital setting," Maitre tells Science Daily.
For parents who are able to be present on the NICU, providing the extra gentle touches themselves can be a way to take back a little bit of control in a situation that often makes moms and dads feel pretty helpless.
Knowing that a gentle hug can help counteract the prick of a needle is just one more reason for parents to snuggle their preemie as much as possible—not that anyone needs another reason.
We parents often feel like our hearts are growing bigger each time we hug our little ones, but the truth is, their brains are growing even faster than our bonds.
[This piece was originally published on July 11, 2017. The headline has since been updated.]