Mother’s voice reduces pain in premature babies: Study

Mother baby
Mother baby

A new study found that when a mother’s voice was used during a difficult medical procedure for her prematurely born infant, the baby’s expression of pain lessened.

The study’s findings were published in the scientific journal ‘Scientific Reports’.

A premature newborn is frequently removed from its parents and placed in special care in an incubator.

For several weeks, he or she will undergo standard medical procedures that may be uncomfortable, but will not be alleviated by an excessive amount of prescription medications that could be harmful to his or her growth.

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Therefore, how can we behave in the baby’s best interest? A team from the University of Geneva (UNIGE), in collaboration with the Parini Hospital in Italy and the University of Valle d’Aosta, observed that when the mother spoke to her baby during the medical intervention, the baby’s oxytocin level increased significantly, indicating improved pain management.

These findings emphasise the critical nature of parental presence with premature infants who are exposed to high levels of stress from birth, a presence that has a direct effect on their health and development.

Premature babies are removed from their mothers as soon as they are born before 37 weeks of gestation and placed in an incubator, frequently in critical care.

They are need to undergo daily medical treatments to maintain their survival (intubation, blood collection, and feeding tube, for example), which may have an effect on their development and pain management.

What is the snag? It is not always viable to alleviate children with pharmaceutical painkillers due to the potential for substantial adverse effects on their brain development in the short and long run.

Other methods include wrapping, restriction, sugar solutions, or non-nutritive sucking with a teat.

However, studies have demonstrated for several years that the presence of a mother or father has a significant soothing effect on the child, most notably through emotional modulation of the voice.

This is why Didier Grandjean’s team at the Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences (FPSE) and at the UNIGE’s Swiss Center for Affective Sciences (CISA) has been studying early vocal contact between the mother and the premature baby, as well as the effect of the mother’s voice on the management of pain associated with routine practises.

To test this idea, the researchers monitored 20 premature infants at Italy’s Parini Hospital and required the mother to be present during daily blood tests, which are performed by extracting a few drops of blood from the heel.

“We concentrated on the maternal voice because it is more difficult for the father to be present during the early days of life due to employment situations that do not always allow for days off,” explained Dr Manuela Filippa, a researcher in Didier Grandjean’s group and the study’s first author.

The study was conducted in three phases over three days to allow for comparison: the first injection was administered without the mother present, the second injection was administered with the mother conversing with the baby, and the third injection was administered with the mother singing to the baby.

The order in which these conditions occurred varied randomly. “For the study, the mother began speaking or singing five minutes before, during, and after the injection,” the Geneva researcher explained.

“We also assessed the voice’s intensity to ensure that it was loud enough to drown out any background noise, as critical care is frequently noisy due to ventilation and other medical instruments,” she added.

To begin, the research team determined whether the baby’s suffering diminished when the mother was there.

They accomplished this through the use of the Preterm Infant Pain Profile (PIPP), which sets a coding grid between 0 and 21 for facial expressions and physiological indicators (heartbeat, oxygenation) indicative of the baby’s painful feelings.

“To code the behaviour of premature infants, we filmed each blood test and reviewed the movies blindly, by qualified staff, without sound, in order to determine whether or not the mother was there,” Didier Grandjean explained.

The results were significant: while the mother is absent, the PIPP is 4.5, but reduces to 3 when the mother speaks to her infant.

“The PIPP is 3.8 when the mother sings. This distinction from the spoken voice is explained by the fact that when the mother sings, she adapts her vocal intonations less to what she detects in her infant because she is bound by the melodic structure, which is not the case when she speaks “The Geneva expert emphasised.

The scientists then examined how the newborn reacts when it hears its mother speak.

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“We immediately turned to oxytocin, the so-called attachment hormone, which has been associated to stress, separation from attachment figures, and pain in earlier research,” Dr Manuela Filippa noted.

The researchers discovered that when the mother spoke or sung and after the heel prick, oxytocin levels increased from 0.8 picograms per millilitre to 1.4 picograms per millilitre. “This is a huge rise in terms of oxytocin,” she explained.

These findings demonstrate the beneficial effect of the mother’s presence during unpleasant medical procedures on premature infants.

“We highlight here the critical nature of reuniting parents and children, even more so in the delicate setting of intensive care,” Manuela Filippa stated.

“Additionally, parents play a protective role in this situation, as they may act and feel involved in assisting their child in being as healthy as possible, which reinforces the critical attachment ties that are expected during a full-term birth,” said Didier Grandjean.


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