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Newborns’ separation from moms found to be “major” stressor

Nov. 4, 2011
Courtesy of Elsevier publishers
and World Science staff

Hos­pi­tals should cut down as much as pos­si­ble on the stand­ard prac­tice of tem­po­rarily sep­a­rat­ing new­borns from their moth­ers, be­cause it puts stress on the in­fant, a new re­port says.

New­borns in West­ern hos­pi­tals are typ­ic­ally swad­dled and placed to sleep in a near­by bas­si­net, or tak­en to the hos­pi­tal nurse­ry so that the moth­er can rest. But the new re­search pub­lished in the jour­nal Bi­o­log­i­cal Psy­chi­a­try sug­gests this is very hard on the child.

New re­search in­di­cates that the prac­tice of separ­ating babies from their moth­ers in hos­pitals is very stress­ful for the infants. (Im­age cour­tesy Vt. Dept. of Chil­dren & Fam­ilies)


“We knew that this was stress­ful, but the cur­rent study sug­gests that this is ma­jor phys­i­o­log­i­cal stres­sor for the in­fant,” said John Krys­tal, the jour­nal’s ed­i­tor and a psy­chi­a­trist at the Yale Uni­vers­ity School of Med­i­cine. It’s not clear wheth­er the separa­t­ion has any long-term ef­fects, the re­search­ers said.

Some separa­t­ion is of­ten un­avoid­a­ble when the ba­by has med­i­cal prob­lems or is prem­a­ture, which may re­quire plac­ing them in an in­cu­ba­tor. The Amer­i­can Acad­e­my of Pe­di­at­rics al­so rec­om­mends against co-sleep­ing with an in­fant, as this may raise the risk for Sud­den In­fant Death Syn­drome. 

As fur­ther ev­i­dence emerges about separation stress, the chal­lenge to doc­tors will be to in­cor­po­rate skin-to-skin con­tact in­to rou­tine treat­ment while still safely pro­vid­ing new­born med­i­cal care, ac­cord­ing to the au­thors of the pa­per.

Hu­mans are the only mam­mals who prac­tice such separa­t­ion, but its phys­i­o­log­ial im­pact on the ba­by has been un­known. Re­search­ers meas­ured heart rate vari­abil­ity in two-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. Com­pared to ba­bies with skin-to-skin con­tact, qui­et sleep was meas­ured to be 86 per­cent low­er dur­ing ma­ter­nal separa­t­ion, while ac­ti­vity in the ba­bies’ au­to­nom­ic, or in­vol­un­tary, nerv­ous sys­tem was found to be 176 per­cent higher.

This re­search ad­dresses a strange con­tra­dic­tion, the re­search­ers said: in an­i­mal stud­ies, 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 rout­ine. “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,” said study au­thor Bar­ak Mor­gan of the Uni­vers­ity of Cape Town, South Af­ri­ca.


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Hospitals should cut down as much as possible on the standard practice of temporarily separating newborns from their mothers, because it puts stress on the infant, a new report said. Newborns in Western hospitals are typically swaddled and placed to sleep in a nearby bassinet, or taken to the hospital nursery so that the mother can rest. But the new research published in the journal Biological Psychiatry suggests this is very hard on the child. “We knew that this was stressful, but the current study suggests that this is major physiologic stressor for the infant,” said John Krystal, the journal’s editor and a psychiatrist at the Yale University School of Medicine. It’s not clear whether the separation has any long-term effects, the researchers said. Some separation is often unavoidable when the baby has medical problems or is premature, which may require placing them in an incubator. The American Academy of Pediatrics also recommends against co-sleeping with an infant, as this may raise the risk for Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. As further evidence emerges, the challenge to doctors will be to incorporate skin-to-skin contact into routine treatment while still safely providing newborn medical care, according to the authors of the paper. Humans are the only mammals who practice such separation, but its physiological impact on the baby has been unknown. Researchers measured heart rate variability in two-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. Compared to babies with skin-to-skin contact, quiet sleep was measured to be 86 percent lower during maternal separation, while activity in the babies’ autonomic, or involuntary, nervous system was found to be 176% higher. This research addresses a strange contradiction, the researchers said: in animal studies, 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 normal. “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,” said study author Barak Morgan of the University of Cape Town, South Africa.