Researchers at the University of British Columbia (UBC) have created a therapeutic robot to help manage pain in babies that are admitted to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).

Called Calmer, the robot simulates skin-to-skin contact to help premature babies cope with uncomfortable and painful medical procedures. It is designed to fit inside an NICU incubator and replace the standard mattress.

The university worked with the British Columbia Institute of Technology and the BC Women’s Hospital and Health Centre to develop Calmer to mimic the sound of a heartbeat, the rhythmic movement of breathing and the feel of skin.

In a study, the team observed that the therapeutic robot helped decrease pain-related indicators compared to hand hugging. The findings have been published in the Pain Reports journal.

“The robot provided the same level of pain relief for infants as a human.”

Study lead author and UBC associate professor Liisa Holsti said: “We found that there were no significant differences between Calmer and human touch. The robot provided the same level of pain relief for infants as a human.

“While there is no replacement for a parent holding their infant, our findings are exciting in that they open up the possibility of an additional tool for managing pain in preterm infants.”

A randomised clinical trial was conducted to evaluate the robot’s effectiveness at mitigating pain in 49 premature babies admitted to the NICU at BC Women’s Hospital and Health Centre.

Various measures were used to assess pain in the Calmer arm compared to a human touch group. It was observed that both groups experienced two points reduction on the pain scale.

Previous research has revealed that early exposure to pain has a negative impact on brain development in premature babies.

The research team is currently evaluating the effects of Calmer in stress reduction over long periods.

Earlier this month, researchers at Northwestern University in the US announced dual wireless body sensors to monitor babies in the NICU.