Newborns sense touch differently: Study

Infants in the first four months of life apparently feel that touch and wiggle their feet without connecting the sensation to you, researchers found.

London: Newborns do not identify the sensation of touch the same way older babies, children and adults do, a new study has found.

When you tickle the toes of newborn babies, the experience for them is not quite as you would imagine it to be, researchers said.

Infants in the first four months of life apparently feel that touch and wiggle their feet without connecting the sensation to you, researchers found.

"Our findings are really the first to address what is quite a fundamental question about our sensory experience in early life," said Andrew Bremner of Goldsmiths, University of London.

"When young babies feel a touch on their hand, can they appreciate where that touch is in the outside world?" he said.

Bremner and the study's first author Jannath Begum Ali found that the answer is no.

The researchers found that when adults cross their hands or feet and someone touches them, they make more mistakes in identifying the origin of the sensation they have felt.

Six-month-old infants make that mistake too, just as adults do. But four-month-old infants get it right more often.

In other words, infants actually outperform older infants and adults in correctly placing where they've been touched when their feet are crossed.

"We think [this means] that before around six months of age, human babies perceive touches just on their bodies, and not in the external world," Bremner said.

The researchers made the discovery by tickling the crossed and uncrossed feet of four- and six-month-old infants with mechanically delivered vibrations.

The younger infants moved the foot that was tickled 70 per cent of the time either way. In contrast, six-month-olds correctly identified the source of the tickle only 50 per cent of the time with their feet crossed - no better than chance.

The new study was inspired by earlier findings showing that congenitally blind adults can localise touches equally well with limbs crossed or uncrossed. Adults who lost their sight after birth, even relatively early in life, do not show the same ability.

The researchers wondered whether young infants with very little visual experience of their bodies might not yet perceive touch in the outside world. And, indeed, it appears they don't.

"Our argument is that for young babies, touches are just perceived as touches on the body; they're not perceived as being related to what they are seeing or hearing, or perhaps even smelling," Bremner said.

"They're not related to objects perceived in vision," Bremner said.

The study is published in the Cell Press journal Current Biology. 

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