Research shows comforting babies eases parental stress in painful procedures

8 March 2024

The Neuroimaging Group, at the Department of Paediatrics, in collaboration with Bliss, the charity for babies born premature or sick, has launched a new suite of information resources for parents of neonates, designed to make them feel more confident about being involved in the care of their babies.

While evidence demonstrates that parents can play a positive role in comforting their baby during painful procedures, practice in the UK lags far behind. However new research by the Neuroimaging Group, published in the Lancet Child & Adolescent Health and Pain has brought further proof of the positive impact that being involved in their baby’s care has on parents.

The Parental touch trial (Petal) aimed to assess whether parental touch at a speed of approximately 3 cm/s to optimally activate C-tactile nerve fibres, provides effective pain relief during a heel-prick procedure. While there was no difference in the babies’ brain, behavioural or heart rate response to pain regardless of whether the parent touched their baby before or after the painful procedure, the findings did demonstrate that the majority of parents had positive emotions when involved in their child’s care – such as feeling useful and reassured – and an overall decrease in parental anxiety after their participation.

These new resources, a combination of beautifully curated and informative videos, FAQs and online information content, have been developed in light of the collaboration with parents and healthcare professionals. They are free to access online and set out in detail the many ways that parents can touch and comfort babies of all gestations during painful procedures on the neonatal unit, including skin-to-skin care.

Commenting on the research in an accompanying Lancet Child and Adolescent Health editorial, Ruth Guinsburg, said: “This study is an example of excellence in research. The trial was carefully designed with a clear question, strict inclusion and exclusion criteria, a well-designed and reproducible intervention based on biological plausibility, and defined outcomes, with the strength of using an objective rather than a subjective measure of pain. Only with trials like this might we transform faith in science and test the efficacy of traditional aspects of parental care in order to incorporate them, or not, in bundles to alleviate the pain in neonates.”

Dr. Rebeccah Slater, Professor of Paediatric Neuroscience and Senior Wellcome Fellow at the Neuroimaging Group, said: “Working with parents, babies and healthcare professionals to better understand how we can support premature and sick babies during painful procedures has been a highlight of my career.

"Developing these resources with Bliss has placed families at the heart of all the research we do, and has directly improved our engagement with families and the quality of our research. We will continue to find new ways to support parents and their babies when painful procedures form an essential component of neonatal care.”

Dr. Roshni Mansfield, a Paediatrics trainee and NIHR Academic Clinical Fellow in the Paediatric Neuroimaging Group said: “The Petal trial has highlighted the importance of involving parents in the provision of care and comfort for relieving their child’s pain. Future studies can build upon the insights gained from this trial including the positive parental experiences observed in this study. Prospective research might, for example, exercise a more spontaneous approach to delivering the gentle touch, such as allowing parents to stroke their child at their own pace, for as long as they need to calm and comfort their child, rather than a more mechanical and precise application.”

Dr. Maria Cobo, a postdoctoral researcher who managed the trial, added: “Another positive aspect of the study was the high degree of involvement by both fathers (35%) and mothers (65%) in delivering the parental touch to their babies. This contrasts with many studies, where only mothers’ opinions and involvement have been sought.”

Caroline Lee-Davey, Chief Executive of Bliss, said: “We are thrilled to have worked alongside the amazing team of researchers at the University of Oxford to further our understanding on the importance of parental involvement in their babies’ neonatal care. We know that babies have the best chance of survival and quality of life when their parents are empowered to be partners in their care but, sadly, we hear all too often that parents are not informed about their babies’ procedures or the role that they can have in comforting their baby. The outcomes of this research have directly shaped a new suite of Bliss information for parents and healthcare professionals which will help to validate what families often instinctively know to be true – that no matter how unexpected or strange the neonatal environment can feel, they are still their baby’s parent and they have a vital role to play in their comfort and care.”

Additional funding from the Wellcome Trust enabled Bliss to develop these valuable resources for families, including new information, video content filmed at John Radcliffe Hospital’s neonatal unit giving precious insight into neonatal care, as well as translated flyers for neonatal units and a webinar for healthcare professionals on how to support parents to be involved in their babies’ procedures. These resources were created in collaboration with parents and healthcare professionals, and included a listening event with the Raham Project, a CIC supporting ethnic minority families, where four mothers shared their neonatal stories.

View the resources here: Being involved in your baby’s care and procedures | Bliss

You can find out more about the new information and research project about parental touch during procedures run by the Paediatric Neuroimaging Group here:

Video Footage

Researching Parental Touch:

How to get involved with parental touch - advice from a doctor:

Parents share their experiences of being involved in medical procedures

Online Material:
Procedures in Neonatal Care: Advice for how to be involved in your babies care and procedures

Researching Parental Touch: The role of parents in comfort and pain relief

Webinar for health professionals: Partnerships with parents during procedures (recording available to watch online)

Flyer translated into Polish, Arabic, Somali, Urdu and Punjabi signposting families to the Bliss information and content

Social Media:
Families inspiring families: Parents share their experiences of being involved in medical procedures

Notes to editors:

• For all media queries please contact the Department of Paediatrics press office at [email protected] or Laura Borg, Communications Lead, at [email protected]

About the Paediatric Neuroimaging Group (Department of Paediatrics, Medical Science Division, Oxford University)
The Paediatric Neuroimaging Group was established in 2013. Led by Professor Rebeccah Slater, it brings together scientists and clinicians to further our understanding of early human brain development.
The Group is a unique research environment which integrates advanced medical imaging, clinical trials, neuroscience and ethics expertise in a clinical setting. It has a particular focus on understanding the development and treatment of infant pain, as well as the impact of apnoea. Its research generates public interest and challenges medical assumptions.

About the Department of Paediatrics
The Department of Paediatrics at the University of Oxford is a global leader in the research, delivery and advancement of the health and care of children and adolescents. It hosts internationally renowned programmes in drug development, gastroenterology, haematology, HIV, immunology, neuroimaging, neuromuscular diseases and vaccinology to name a few, and its work spans from early proof-of-concept and fundamental science to its application in clinical settings.
The Department of Paediatrics’ pioneering research, policy development and clinical excellence is led by world-class experts in their field and it has a long track record of success in the development and delivery of effective treatments and interventions. Its work is supported by the clinical and educational resources of one of the world’s foremost academic institutions.

About the University of Oxford
Oxford University has been ranked number 1 in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings for the eighth year running, and number 3 in the QS World Rankings 2024. At the heart of this success are the twin-pillars of our ground-breaking research and innovation and our distinctive educational offer.
Oxford is world-famous for research and teaching excellence and home to some of the most talented people from across the globe. Our work helps the lives of millions, solving real-world problems through a huge network of partnerships and collaborations. The breadth and interdisciplinary nature of our research alongside our personalised approach to teaching sparks imaginative and inventive insights and solutions.

About Bliss
Bliss is the UK’s leading neonatal charity for the 90,000 babies born needing neonatal care each year. Founded in 1979 by a group of concerned parents who discovered that no hospital had all the equipment nor the trained staff it needed to safely care for premature and sick babies, Bliss exists to ensure that every baby born premature or sick has the best chance of survival and quality of life. We champion these babies’ right to receive the best care through supporting families, campaigning for change, supporting professionals, and enabling life-changing research. Find out more about Bliss’ work at