Study Shows a Mother’s Love Can Relieve Infant’s Pain


Putting very little babies through numerous medical procedures is especially challenging for physicians, in part because reducing the pain they experience is so difficult. According to researchers from New York University (NYU), maternal caregiving can help sooth pain in infants and alter gene activity within the babies’ brains. Researchers examined brains of baby rats, while in the presence of their mothers, comparing measurements to times when the pair were separated.


Electrical shocks were delivered to infant rats while gene activation was monitored. Several hundred genes delivering pain signals were activated within rat pups who were separated from their mothers. Fewer than 100 such centers were sparked in those pups who were in the presence of their mother. Surgical examination of the almond-shaped amygdala revealed the genetic changes driven by the presence of the mother include that alterations affected signaling between cells.

The researchers found that hundreds of genes, including those responsible for pain signals, changed their actions based on the presence or absence of the mother. Samples were taken from the amygdala region of the rodent pups brains, an area which controls fear and directs some pleasure functions.

Regina Sullivan, a neurobiologist from NYU who led the new research, said, “Our study shows that a mother comforting her infant in pain does not just elicit a behavioral response, but also the comforting itself modifies — for better or worse — critical neural circuitry during early brain development.”

Another study, conducted by Sullivan and Gordon Barr of the University of Pennsylvania, and expert in pain, found that, “Having the mother there is not innocuous, it is a major shaper.”

Opiate drugs, used to treat adults suffering from physical pain, can lead to  addiction, making physicians hesitant to order it in treatment of infants. Sullivan and her team believe their study could assist researchers in developing new methods of treating pain in infants. This news study suggests that newborns could experience significant pain relief from being near their mothers. Physicians may be able to, one day, ease physical discomfort in infants simply by exposing them to the scent of their mother, although this study does not prove that form of treatment could be effective.

The more we learn about nurturing the infant brain during infancy, the better prepared we are to deal long-term with treating problems that arise from pain, and physical and mental abuse experienced during infancy,” Sullivan said. The long-term effects of gene alterations initiated within infant brains are uncertain.

This is the first major study to examine how brains of infant mammals are affected by locale of mothers.

© 2014 Vimala McClure