A groundbreaking 20-year study has found that that the physical connections made by babies in their earliest days have implications for their health and their social development in later years, particularly their ability to empathise with others.

The findings have particular implications for premature and sick babies who require neonatal care and can face their first days in isolation. The research concluded that premature babies who have had early and sustained skin-to-skin contact maintained emotional and cognitive advantages into adulthood.

Ruth Feldman, professor of developmental social neuroscience at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya in Israel, and Andrew Meltzoff, co-director of the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences at the University of Washington, shared the research last week at the 2020 American Association for the Advancement of Science Annual Meeting in Seattle.

For premature babies who require incubation, a touch-based intervention known as “kangaroo care” is prescribed. In such cases, babies are placed skin-to-skin on their mother’s chest.

Tracking the same group, Feldman has previously shown that administering kangaroo care just one hour daily for 14 consecutive days has yielded long-lasting gains to the infants’ physiological support systems as they grow: better sleep, better autonomous functioning, milder stress response, and fewer markers of inflammation, she said.

Most recently, the professor has investigated the “social brain” of the babies, now 20-year-olds. She found that empathic accuracy – the brain’s capacity to distinguish and respond differently to others’ specific emotions – was stronger among the adults who received kangaroo care as infants compared to those who were premature but did not receive kangaroo care. Feldman captured brain imaging data as the now-adult study participants observed others experiencing joy, sadness and distress; considered the precise emotions; and put themselves into the shoes of the person experiencing those feelings.

“This is a hopeful intervention,” said Feldman, who noted that kangaroo care is now a standard practice of care for premature babies. “There is something about the provision of maternal bodily contact during that period of separation that sets the child to a lifetime of a different trajectory.”

For more information on skin-to-skin and kangaroo care, visit Bliss’ webpage on the topic.

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Aditya Romansa on Unsplash