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3 November 2011
Striking findings from maternal separation stress tests

The common practice of placing a newborn baby in a bassinet or moving it to a nursery, has been found to place major physiologic stressors on the infant. The study, in Biological Psychiatry, also notes that separation is common for babies under medical distress or premature babies, who may be placed in an incubator. In addition, pediatricians specifically recommend against co-sleeping with an infant, due to its association with Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. But humans are the only mammals who practice such maternal-neonate separation and its dramatic impact on the baby has been unknown until now.

For the study, the researchers measured heart rate variability in 2-day-old sleeping babies for one hour each during skin-to-skin contact with mother and alone in a cot next to mother's bed. They found neonatal autonomic activity was 176 percent higher and quiet sleep 86 percent lower during maternal separation compared to skin-to-skin contact.

This research highlights a strange contradiction in medicine: In animal research, separation from the mother is a common way of creating stress in order to study its damaging effects on the developing newborn brain. At the same time, separation of human newborns is common practice, particularly when specialized medical care is required.

"Skin-to-skin contact with mother removes this contradiction, and our results are a first step towards understanding exactly why babies do better when nursed in skin-to-skin contact with mother, compared to incubator care," explained study author Dr. Barak Morgan, from the University of Cape Town, South Africa. "More research is necessary to understand whether it is sustained response and whether it has any long-term neurodevelopmental effects."

"This paper highlights the profound impact of maternal separation on the infant. We knew that this was stressful, but the current study suggests that this is major physiologic stressor for the infant," noted Dr. John Krystal, Editor of Biological Psychiatry.

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Source: Biological Psychiatry


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