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Wrapped in comfort: When parental touch heals pain

Wrapped in comfort: When parental touch heals pain

Newborns perceive pain and respond to it in the same way as adults. Skin-to-skin contact with parents helps alleviate pain in infants as it gives them a sense of security and comfort

Parental touch can help alleviate pain in infants

It is indeed fascinating to observe how newborns stop crying when their parents gently caress them, making one wonder whether parental touch can ease pain in children. Whether it’s the pain of a heel prick, the sting of a vaccination or the ache from a fall, a parent’s gentle embrace has the magical ability to calm the baby down. However, it’s not just magic, say experts, explaining the various psychological and physiological mechanisms involved in parental touch.

Parental touch and pain relief

Regardless of whether a newborn is pre-term, full-term or post-term, they perceive pain and respond to it in the same way that adults do. And much like adults, many pharmacological and non-pharmacological methods are employed to either avoid or lessen several forms of pain in children.

“One of the non-pharmacological methods used to alleviate pain in newborns is touch,” says Dr Bharath N, junior consultant, neonatology, DHEE Hospitals, Bangalore. “Touch therapy is associated with reduced pain response in neonates [newborns] as it stabilizes their heart rate and respiration. In addition, it also reduces crying time, leading to improved sleep duration and reduced adverse consequences, both immediate and long-term.”

Dr Bharath explains how certain neurotransmitters (bodily chemicals) play a crucial role in reducing pain response in newborns through skin-to-skin touch. “Skin-to-skin touch or physical contact with parents increases endorphin and serotonin levels in infants, which are neurotransmitters that play a significant role in the regulation of pain perception,” he adds.

Another form of touch — baby massages — help manage pain by regulating stress, which reduces the levels of hormones such as norepinephrine, epinephrine and urinary cortisol.

Psychology behind parental touch and pain relief

Parental touch can act as a means of diversion. A parent’s touch can provide reassurance to the child and help divert their attention away from the pain. This, in turn, lessens how intense they perceive the pain to be.

“A child’s mental well-being is greatly influenced by parental touch since it promotes a secure attachment and gives them a sense of security and comfort,” says Anya Reddy, a play therapist from Bangalore. “This emotional safety may have a direct effect on pain control. In general, children who have a strong attachment to their parents tend to be less anxious and distressed. When a kid feels emotionally connected to their parents, they can be relied upon to comfort and support them in difficult circumstances. Parental touch teaches kids how to regulate their emotions and can provide them with better coping mechanisms.”

Children who turn to their parents for support are more likely to be able to handle themselves during distressing situations.

When is parental touch effective?

Since younger children (infants and toddlers) are more dependent on their caregivers for emotional control and comfort compared to older ones, parental touch has a greater impact on them in reducing pain.

“Children may diversify their coping techniques as they get older and become more independent. As a result, the effect of parental touch on pain reduction can become less evident,” says Reddy.

Even though there is a common notion that pre-term babies cannot perceive pain, Dr Bharath asserts that it is not true.

“Since preterm babies spend more time outside the womb, they are more likely to be exposed to painful procedures. They respond to touch in an equivalent way to full-term infants,” he adds.

How to ease an infant’s pain through touch

Skin-to-skin contact is seen to be beneficial in routine baby care procedures like measuring weight, changing diapers and recording vitals, along with vitamin K injections and heel pricks. Other methods like hand swaddling, facilitated tucking, etc. can also help manage pain in infants, say experts.

Sometimes, combining other methods with skin-to-skin touch can show improved results. “These techniques include letting the infant nurse on the mother’s breast during painful procedures, swaddling, providing oral sucrose [a mild analgesic used to reduce short-term pain and discomfort during simple procedures], etc.,” adds Dr Bharath.


  • One of the non-pharmacological approaches for neonatal pain management is parental touch. It raises the level of neurotransmitters (like endorphin and serotonin) in infants that help regulate pain perception.
  • Through regulating stress levels, baby massages also help manage pain in infants by lowering the levels of hormones like norepinephrine, epinephrine, and urinary cortisol.
  • Parental touch also ensures the emotional safety of children, providing them with better coping mechanisms to manage pain.
  • Parental touch has a greater impact on pain reduction among infants and toddlers compared to older children, as they depend more on their caregivers for emotional control and comfort.

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