Every year 15 million preterm infants are born, and most spend their first weeks in neonatal intensive care units (NICUs). Although essential for the support and survival of these infants, the sensory environment of a NICU is dramatically different from the environment in which term-born infants mature, and thus impacts the development of functional brain organization. Amplifying the importance of this fact, early sensory development is the critical scaffold upon which healthy perceptual, behavioral and cognitive development depends.
In neonates, touch is a building block for interpersonal interactions and sensory-cognitive development. Many NICU treatments used to improve neuro-developmental outcomes rely heavily on touch. Yet, we understand little of how the brains of babies born prematurely and the quality of their early-life tactile experiences (e.g., supportive touch vs. painful tactile events) interact to shape ongoing brain development.