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Gently Stroking Babies Before Medical Procedures May Reduce Pain

mom comforting baby

No one wants their infant to undergo painful medical procedures, but unfortunately, sometimes it may be necessary. We're not talking about a vaccine, although those too can be slightly painful in the immediate aftermath. We're talking about blood draws or IVs, which can be more drawn out, and as such, cause more pain to little babies. There are definitely measures that doctors and hospitals take to reduce the painful felt during these types of procedures, like applying a local numbing agent to the area. But new research shows that something as simple as gently stroking babies before a procedure can reduce their response and provide effective pain relief.

As parents, we're used to intuitively stroking our babies and kids to provide comfort and even pain relief. Rebeccah Slater, professor of pediatric science at the University of Oxford who worked alongside researchers and was the senior author on the study, says that the same kind of gentle stroking can also be effective in relieving infant pain right before a medical procedure. The research team observed and measured newborns' pain responses to some medically necessary procedures using electroencephalography (EEG). The EEG measures electrical activity on the surface of the brain.

Half the babies undergoing tests were stroked gently right before the test using a a soft brush, at a speed of approximately 3 centimeters per second. The data showed that the infants who were stroked lightly had lower pain-related activity on their EEG. The babies did, however, still reflexed their limbs away from the painful stimulus. The speed at which the brushing was done, 3 centimeters per second, is a frequency that activates a certain class of sensory neurons in the skin, called C-tactile afferents. This class of neurons has been shown to also reduce pain in adults, but up until now, researchers weren't sure if the sensory reaction developed over time or was also present in infants.

It's a great bit of research for parents and doctors alike, who are always looking for ways to reduce the pain associated with some minor but necessary medical procedures. Hopefully, it can help lower the stress of babies who have to undergo these procedures, and lower the stress of parents who have to watch.

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