Preterm Babies: Hearing Mother’s Voice Alleviates their Pain

Recently, the journal Nature published the research from the University of Geneva, which scientifically demonstrates that hearing the mother’s voice significantly alleviated the pain preterm babies experienced when undergoing clinical procedures.

Frequently, babies that are born before reaching full-term must spend time in neonatal intensive care units (NICUs) and may need to undergo several painful clinical procedures. This can also imply lengthy separation from parents.

The study focused on the effect of the mothers’ voice since it is not always feasible for parents to hold their babies in intensive care where they are placed in incubators.

The first author of the study, Dr. Manuela Filippa, with colleagues from the Universities of Geneva and Aosta, and Parini Hospital (Italy) evaluated pain during routine heel sticks to withdraw blood from 20 preterm babies in NICU. The team evaluated the babies’ responses to the procedure in three different settings: the mother speaking to her child, the mother singing to her child, and the mother not being present. To gauge the babies’ pain levels for each procedure the team recorded each infant’s facial expression, heartbeat, and level of oxygen. The three measurements were recorded and subsequently examined by researchers who were unaware of which condition it related to.

The results demonstrate that when the mothers were speaking, the pain levels deemed to be experienced by the babies fell, on average, from 4.5 to 3 on a 21-point scale. According to Dr. Filippa: “for this specific age, this is a significant improvement”.

In addition, the team found the mothers’ speaking to be associated with a significant rise in levels of the hormone oxytocin in the babies’ saliva samples. Dr. Filippa explained that oxytocin is known to be involved in the attachment processes and can also be protective against the effects of pain.

They evaluated the mother’s voice because a baby has a particular bond with his mother and he has become familiar with her voice in the womb. Nonetheless, this does not eliminate the important role of the father, whose voice can also become familiar to the baby prior to birth. Dr. Filippa said they will also to conduct studies on the effect of the fathers’ voice.

The authors acknowledge that the study is somewhat limited due to the small number of babies involved, and that additional tests, notably neurological ones would provide more specific information. However, they consider the results to be promising, stating that: “the key message is that it is very important to involve parents in the early care of their preterm babies, and also in difficult situations like painful procedures, using their voice.” For families and caregivers of premature children, this is a given fact.

According to Charlotte Bouvard, president of the French association “SOS Prema”: “this study proves the obvious”. The association provides daily support to families by working closely with health care teams and public authorities. They aim to ensure that the odds are in favor of premature babies receiving the best possible conditions to develop and thrive in good health. The association’s psychologist, Myriam Dannay, has just published a parental guidebook which addresses each stage of development for preterm babies.

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