A baby's earliest experiences of touch shape their future brain.
Researchers at Nationwide Children's Hospital measured the brain response to touch of 125 premature and full-term babies right before they were discharged from the hospital.
They found that preemies exposed to gentle touch, like kangaroo care, were more responsive to touch when they went home.
On the other hand, babies who had more painful touches - such as needle sticks and procedures - were less responsive at home.
Researchers also learned the earlier a preemie was born, the less responsive they were to touch right after birth.
The experience of touch is the beginnings of the development of human communication.
Early touch can also have a lasting effect on the development of other senses, like sight and hearing.
Increased gentle skin-to-skin contact with parents and hospital staff helped diminish the effects on brain response for preterm babies, the researchers said.
Lead researcher Nathalie Maitre said when parents cannot provide the amount of gentle touch a baby needs, such as when infants are in isolettes in the NICU, it's important for hospitals to provide it, possibly by occupational and physical therapists under a carefully planned program.
Maitre's team now wants to examine the long-term effects of disrupting the development of the touch response.
The findings were published in the journal Current Biology.