Prof. Strauss, can you describe the role of physical touch in the survival of premature babies and the evidence behind it?
Until 15 years ago, the NICU (neonatal intensive care unit) was a place with a lot of noise, fluorescent light from the ceiling and painful stimulation. It was often a scary environment for babies and very different from life in the comforting womb of their mothers. Parents were scared to touch their 500 gram or one kilo baby. We, the doctors, didn’t emphasize it enough. Over time, however, with more research on the role of human touch and pain prevention, we’ve come to appreciate that touch is extremely important. When people touch each other, there is a release of oxytocin, the “bonding” or “love” hormone. Once oxytocin is released, blood pressure goes down and the passive sympathetic nerve system starts to work. During birth, for example, the mother’s oxytocin level goes through the roof. Immediately after birth, she bonds with the baby because of the crazy amounts of oxytocin set free in her system. Several other studies have shown that skin-to-skin care helps to develop the immune system of the baby, has a positive effect on weight gain, improves breast milk production and makes mother and baby more relaxed during a very stressful time in the NICU.
The latest studies are on brain development. Our mature brain looks like a walnut, with many folds and creases. The preterm brain does not look like that. At 26 weeks old, the brain is still completely smooth. This means that during the time babies spend in the NICU, in the incubator, the brain is still developing. A study involving brain MRIs on preterm babies showed that those babies whose parents did not come to touch them or talk to them while they were in the incubator had less developed temporal lobes. The temporal lobe is the area of the brain responsible for listening and communicating. In those babies who did not receive talk or touch, it stayed flat: no wrinkles, folds or creases. This sensory deprivation—meaning not enough human touch or verbal stimulation—slowed down brain development. Finally, other studies in Africa have shown that skin-to-skin care reduced mortality of premature babies by 20 percent.