The 22,000 Canadian babies who are born prematurely each year undergo major discomforts in the first weeks of their life. Many are isolated in hospital incubators, fed intravenously and monitored closely with intrusive equipment. As a result, many doctors encourage the mothers of such
babies to spend time touching and, if possible, holding their infants in order to establish a bond with them. But a recent U.S. study says that the benefits of touching in those circumstances go far beyond bonding. Indeed, the study found that human contact not only helps preterm babies gain weight
faster but also speeds their mental and motor development.
Researchers say that the study, conducted by a team headed by psychologist Tiffany Field at Florida’s University of Miami Medical School, could radically alter future hospital procedures. Field selected 40 premature infants who had left intensive care and needed no extra oxygen or intravenous feedings but who still weighed less than four pounds each. Half of the infants received touch and movement stimulation—predetermined patterns of limb manipulation and gentle stroking—for three 15-minute periods each day. The others, whose mothers had expressed little interest in them, received none.
At the end of 10 days, the researchers found that the stimulated infants gained 47 per cent more weight than the others. They also showed greater alertness, were more active, responded better to new stimuli and needed an average of six fewer days in hospital. A follow-up study eight months later showed that the stimulated babies were heavier, longer and had fewer neurological problems.
The study has focused attention on a long-standing medical dilemma: whether it is better to imitate conditions in the womb for premature babies or to provide sensory stimulation to help them adapt quickly to the outside world. In recent years many researchers, concerned about sensory deprivation in preterm infants, have developed ways to provide external stimulation through the use of music, rocking cots and bold patterns on hospital walls. Others, more concerned with replicating conditions in the womb, have experimented with taped heartbeats, waterbeds and darkened rooms.
But many researchers now say that a critical factor is the quality and the timing of sensory stimulation. Said Dr. Saroj Saigal, an infant specialist at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont.: “It is too simple to view the womb as lacking stimulation—or to view premature babies in incubators as a population deprived of stimulation. We are now beginning to realize that the hospital environment, with its bright lights and noisy machinery, may offer too much stimulation too soon, much of it of a negative or even painful kind.” Field’s approach may help resolve that dilemma. Indeed, her findings have already led some U.S. hospitals to hire grandmothers as “cuddlers” for preterms. In the future such techniques may be as important to the survival of preterm babies as machinery is today.
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