Hearing mother’s voice can lessen pain in premature babies, study suggests

Researchers have discovered that preterm babies feel less pain when their mothers speak to them about medical procedures.
Baby's who are born early may have to spend time at neonatal intensive units and may require painful medical procedures. This can lead to long separations from parents.

Researchers have discovered that the sound of the mother's voice can reduce the pain felt by babies during medical procedures.

The University of Geneva's Dr Manuela Filippa was the first author of this study.

She said that we are working to find non-pharmacological ways of reducing the pain in these babies. She also stated that there was growing evidence that parental contact with preterm infants could be beneficial for attachment.

Filippa stated that the team focused on voice as it is not always possible for parents or babies to be held in intensive care. However, voice can be an effective tool to express emotions.

Because infants will have heard the voice of their mothers in the womb, it was important to study mother's voices. Filippa stated that a father's voice could become familiar over time.

She said that we are also conducting studies on vocal contacts between fathers and their children.

Filippa and her colleagues from the University of Geneva, Parini Hospital in Italy, and the University of Valle dAosta wrote in Scientific Reports about how they studied the pain response of 20 premature babies under neonatal intensive Care. They used a routine procedure where the foot is pricked, and a few drops of the blood are taken.

The team examined the babies' responses to the procedure three times. Each of these was randomly assigned to one condition: the mother speaking to her baby, the mother singing to her baby, or the mother not being there.

The team recorded three measures to assess the pain felt by the baby: the infant's facial expressions and heartbeat. Researchers were not able to determine which condition the first recording was from.

According to the results, infants felt pain from 4.5 to 3.

Filippa said that this is a significant change for this age.

The team also found that the mother's speaking was associated with an increase in the levels of the hormone Oxytocin in the saliva samples from the babies.

It is well-known that oxytocin plays a role in attachment and maternal sensitivity. Filippa said that it can protect against the pain effects.

Filippa stated that a reduction in pain was less evident when mothers were singing. This could be due to the limitations of structure, pitch, and melody of songs or lullabies.

There were a few limitations to the study, such as the small number of infants involved. Filippa stated that we should have more preterm infants involved in the study and other measures for pain perception, such as neurological measures.

She said that the results were encouraging. She said that the key message is to include parents in preterm infant care. Parents should also be involved in difficult situations such as painful procedures. We know that parents can do this and it's beneficial.

Rebeccah Slater from the University of Oxford, who is a professor of paediatric neuroscience, did not participate in the study. She said that encouraging parents to help their babies through painful procedures with gentle touch and voice can have benefits for both parents and babies.

Although the effect of maternal voice on pain scores is not significant, it's a promising strategy for improving comfort for babies undergoing essential medical procedures.