Maternal voice reduces pain in premature babies

These results demonstrate the importance of parental presence with premature babies.


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The mother-child relationship is amazing, it can’t be put into words. It is long known that newborns recognize and prefer their mom’s voice.

Maternal voice works like magic, also for premature babies, when they are placed in an incubator in intensive care, suggests a new study.

Premature babies are often placed into an incubator. They undergo routine medical procedures that can be painful without being relieved by too many pharmaceutical painkillers, which are risky for their development. In such cases, maternal voice can alleviate that pain.

The study 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 at the time of the medical intervention, the signs of the baby’s expression of pain decreased. It was also found that their oxytocin level increased significantly, which could attest to better pain management.

The study highlights the importance of parental presence with premature babies. This presence has a real impact on their well-being and development.

Scientists wanted to know the effect of vocal contact between the mother and the premature baby in the management of pain resulting from the routine practices necessary for the babies’ follow-up and the psychological and cerebral mechanisms involved.

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

For the study, scientists followed 20 premature babies at the Parini Hospital in Italy. They asked the mother to be present during the daily blood test. The study was conducted in three phases over three days. a first injection was taken without the mother being present, a second with the mother talking to the baby, and a third with the mother singing to the baby. The order of these conditions changed randomly.

Scientists noted, “For the study, the mother started talking or singing five minutes before the injection, during the injection, and after the procedure. We also measured the intensity of the voice so that it would cover surrounding noise, as intensive care is often noisy due to ventilation and other medical devices.”

Scientists used the Preterm Infant Pain Profile (PIPP) to determine if the mother’s presence decreases pain in babies, scientists used the Preterm Infant Pain Profile (PIPP). The PIPP establishes a coding grid between 0 and 21 for facial expressions and physiological parameters (heartbeat, oxygenation) attesting to the baby’s painful feelings.

Didier Grandjean said, “To code the behavior of premature babies, we filmed each blood test and judged the videos’ blind’, by trained personnel, without sound, so as not to know whether the mother was present or not.”

“The results are significant: the PIPP is 4.5 when the mother is absent and drops to 3 when the mother talks to her baby. When the mother sings, the PIPP is 3.8. This difference with the spoken voice can be explained by the fact that the mother adapts her vocal intonations less to what she perceives in her baby when she sings because she is in a way constrained by the melodic structure, which is not the case when she speaks.”

Dr. Manuela Filippa said, “We then looked at what changes in the baby when it hears its mother speak. We quickly turned to oxytocin, the so-called attachment hormone, which previous studies have already linked to stress, separation from attachment figures, and pain.”

“Using a painless saliva sample before the mother spoke or sang and after the heel prick, we found that oxytocin levels rose from 0.8 picograms per milliliter to 1.4 when the mother spoke. In terms of oxytocin, this is a significant increase.”

Manuela Filippa emphasizes, “We demonstrate here the importance of bringing parents and child together, especially in the delicate context of intensive care.”

Didier Grandjean said, “Furthermore, parents play a protective role here and can act and feel involved in helping their child to be as well as possible, which strengthens the essential attachment bonds that are taken for granted in a full-term birth.”

Journal Reference:
  1. Filippa, M., Monaci, M.G., Spagnuolo, C. et al. Maternal speech decreases pain scores and increases oxytocin levels in preterm infants during painful procedures. Sci Rep 11, 17301 (2021). DOI: 10.1038/s41598-021-96840-4


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