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BACKGROUND: Touch interventions such as massage and skin-to-skin contact relieve neonatal pain. The Parental touch trial (Petal) aimed to assess whether parental stroking of their baby before a clinically required heel lance, at a speed of approximately 3 cm/s to optimally activate C-tactile nerve fibres, provides effective pain relief. METHODS: Petal is a multicentre, randomised, parallel-group interventional superiority trial conducted in the John Radcliffe Hospital (Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, Oxford, UK) and the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital (Royal Devon University Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust, Exeter, UK). Neonates without neurological abnormalities who were born at 35 weeks gestational age or more and required a blood test via a heel lance in the first week of life were randomly assigned (1:1) to receive parental touch for 10 s either before (intervention group) or after (control group) the clinically required heel lance. Randomisation was managed at the Oxford site using a web-based minimisation algorithm with allocation concealment. The primary outcome measure was the magnitude of noxious-evoked brain activity in response to the heel lance measured with electroencephalography (EEG). Secondary outcome measures were Premature Infant Pain Profile-Revised (PIPP-R) score, development of tachycardia, and parental anxiety score. For all outcomes, the per-protocol effect was estimated via complier average causal effect analysis on the full analysis set. The trial is registered on ISRCTN (ISRCTN14135962) and (NCT04901611). FINDINGS: Between Sept 1, 2021, and Feb 7, 2023, 159 parents were approached to participate in the study, and 112 neonates were included. 56 neonates were randomly assigned to the intervention group of parental stroking before the heel lance and 56 to the control group of parental stroking after the heel lance. The mean of the magnitude of the heel lance-evoked brain activity was 0·85 arbitrary units (a.u.; SD 0·70; n=39; a scaled magnitude of 1 a.u. represents the expected mean response to a heel lance in term-aged neonates) in the intervention group and 0·91 a.u. (SD 0·76; n=43) in the control group. Therefore, the primary outcome did not differ significantly between groups, with a mean difference of -0·11 a.u. (lower in intervention group; SD 0·77; 95% CI -0·42 to 0·20; p=0·38; n=82). No significant difference was observed across secondary outcomes. The PIPP-R difference in means was 1·10 (higher in intervention group, 95% CI -0·42 to 2·61; p=0·15; n=100); the odds ratio of becoming tachycardic was 2·08 (95% CI 0·46 to 9·46; p=0·34, n=105) in the intervention group with reference to the control group; and the difference in parental State-Trait Anxiety Inventory-State score was -0·44 (higher in control group; SD 6·85; 95% CI -2·91 to 2·02; p=0·72; n=106). One serious adverse event (desaturation) occurred in a neonate randomly assigned to the control group, which was not considered to be related to the study. INTERPRETATION: Parental stroking delivered at an optimal speed to activate C-tactile fibres for a duration of 10 s before the painful procedure did not significantly change neonates' magnitude of pain-related brain activity, PIPP-R score, or development of tachycardia. The trial highlighted the challenge of translating an experimental researcher-led tactile intervention into a parent-led approach, and the value of involving parents in their baby's pain management. FUNDING: Wellcome Trust and Bliss.

Original publication




Journal article


Lancet Child Adolesc Health

Publication Date





259 - 269


Infant, Newborn, Humans, Aged, Pain, Procedural, Touch, Pain, Tachycardia, United Kingdom