It’s not easy being born, and when you come into the world sooner than you should, you need extra help, including painful jabs and pokes with various unfriendly medical devices. Fortunately, new research has found that one simple and inexhaustible thing can limit this pain and discomfort: the mother’s voice.
The research, published in the journal Scientific Reports, was carried out by a team from the University of Geneva (UNIGE), in collaboration with Parini Hospital in Italy and the University of Valle d’Aosta. They report that their findings demonstrate how important it is for parents to have access to babies during newborn care, especially given that even just hearing a parent’s voice can significantly improve a premature baby’s experience during treatment.
Premature infants are all newborn infants who are born at a gestational age of less than 260 days or earlier than 37 weeks and weigh less than 2,500 kg. As a result, their organs have not developed properly and this can cause a number of complications. Thanks to modern medicine, these babies can survive through intubation, feeding tubes and regular monitoring. However, the system is imperfect because these tiny bodies cannot tolerate painkillers well. That is why specialists in neonatology departments resort to alternative methods of pain relief, such as wrapping, sugar solutions and giving a pacifier (without any nutritional value for the child).
Past research has already shown that the presence of the mother or father can have a calming effect on their babies (especially if they are spoken to in a soothing tone). This inspired Didier Grandjean, a professor at the Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences (FPSE) as well as the Swiss Center for Affective Sciences (CISA) of UNIGE and their team to further investigate the influence of the mother’s voice on the premature baby.
For this purpose, the specialists decided to follow the development of 20 premature babies at the Parini Hospital in Italy. They encourage their mothers to be present during the daily blood tests (blood is drawn by pricking the heel, not the arm). The scientists then compared the babies’ reactions to the injections in three different conditions – only in the presence of the mother, when the mother spoke to them and when the mother sang to them.
“For the purpose of the study, the mother starts talking or singing five minutes before the injection, during the injection and after the procedure – says Prof. Grandjean. – We also measured the intensity of the voice – ie. its ability to drown out the noise around us, as intensive care units are often quite noisy due to ventilators and other medical devices.”
Thanks to the Preterm Infant Pain Profile (PIPP), which assesses facial expressions and psychological signs of pain (heart rate, oxygenation), scientists have found that the mother’s presence has a strong influence. When she is not there, PIPP is around 4.5, but drops to 3 when she is talking to her child. Value drops 3.8 when singing to him. According to the researchers, this is because in “baby talk” the mother changes her voice more often specifically for her baby than when singing.
Oxytocin is also affected, rising from 0.8 picograms per milliliter to 1.4 when the mother is talking, a significant change for the hormone often called the “love drug.”
“We demonstrate the importance of parent-child reunification especially in the delicate context of intensive care,” says Manuela Filipa, one of the lead authors.
“Furthermore, in this situation, parents fulfill a protective role and may feel more involved in trying to make their child feel as good as possible, which strengthens the basic attachment bonds that are generally taken for granted in completely worn-out children.” , concluded Grandjean.
The research is published in Scientific Reports.
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