Imperial College London

Breastfeeding: Babies’ response to facial touch measured with 3D printed device

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Closeup of newborn baby breastfeeding from its mother

Facial sense of touch is important to enable babies breastfeed; this new device could help researchers understand when things go wrong.

Babies need a sense of touch in their faces to give contact feedback to the brain, which in turn helps the baby find the nipple to breastfeed.

For example, if a newborn baby’s right cheek is lying on their mother’s breast, the baby feeds back the sensory information from its cheek to the brain, which then signals the baby to turn its head to the right and ‘root’ for the nipple.

The sensations of touch, temperature, body position, and pain are recognised through neural receptors in the skin – all critical for babies to be able to breastfeed without outside help. Now, we can measure the effect of these sensations more accurately than ever before. Professor Etienne Burdet Department of Bioengineering

However, premature babies often have difficulty feeding, perhaps because their facial sensitivity is underdeveloped. Finding a way to measure brain responses to facial touch is thus important for understanding brain development in newborns and premature babies.

Now, researchers from Imperial College London, UCL, and Campus Bio-Medico University in Italy, have developed a 3D printed device to study the sense of touch in babies’ faces. Until now, there were no suitable methods to activate and measure brain activity using touch in newborns.

The authors of the report, published in PLOS One, say the success of their device could add to the knowledge of breastfeeding in newborns, and could be used in the future to help premature babies to feed.

A lighter touch

Current methods of stimulating and measuring brain activity in response to touch aren’t suitable for newborn faces, so the researchers 3D printed a custom-made device integrating a custom made sensor to be worn on the fingertip and covered by a clinical glove.

Co-author Professor Etienne Burdet from Imperial’s Department of Bioengineering, who supervised the device’s design and fabrication, said: “We had to develop a stimulating system that was safe to use on the delicate face of the babies and acceptable to their parents. We used an iterative design approach to develop a seamless wearable device that can measure a natural finger tap to the skin.

“After we found that conventional sensors were not practical, we developed a dedicated sensor and packaging using 3D printing.”

Facial sense of touch is important for breastfeeding babies
Facial sense of touch is important for breastfeeding babies

They then recruited seven babies who averaged seven days old at UCL Hospital’s postnatal and neonatal wards. They lightly tapped the babies’ cheeks with the device to activate brain responses, before measuring their brain activity with electroencephalography (EEG). The finger device also recorded the force of each tap.

They found that the device did indeed allow them to measure brain activity specific to the face contact in the babies. The authors say this helps us understand how premature babies process touch information, and could help medical professionals to make informed decisions relating to their development.

Co-author Dr Lorenzo Fabrizi from UCL said: “We’ve proved that we can record the sense of touch from the face. This means that for premature babies, it is possible to study how they process the tactile information that they receive from the face, how this changes as they mature and whether disruption of this process might lead to longer-term feeding problems.”

Professor Burdet added: “The sensations of touch, temperature, body position, and pain are recognised through neural receptors in the skin – all critical for babies to be able to breastfeed without outside help. Now, we can measure the effect of these sensations more accurately than ever before.”

The research was funded by the European Commission, the UK Medical Research Council and the Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council.

This story was adapted from a press release by UCL.

 

See the press release of this article

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Caroline Brogan

Caroline Brogan
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