Pain-related stress in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit and salivary cortisol reactivity to socio-emotional stress in 3-month-old very preterm infants.Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2016 10; 72:161-5.P
Very preterm (VPT) infants are hospitalized in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) and exposed to varying levels of skin-breaking procedures (pain-related stress), even in absence of severe clinical conditions. Repeated and prolonged pain exposure may alter hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis reactivity in VPT infants. During the post-discharge period, altered HPA axis reactivity has been documented in response to non-social stressors, using salivary cortisol as a biomarker. However, little is known about the effects of NICU pain-related stress on subsequent HPA axis reactivity to socio-emotional stress in infants. We examined the relationship between pain-related stress in NICU and HPA axis reactivity (i.e., salivary cortisol reactivity) to an age-appropriate socio-emotional condition in 37 healthy VPT infants compared to 53 full-term (FT) controls. The number of skin-breaking procedures was obtained across NICU stay for VPT infants. At 3 months (corrected age for prematurity), all infants participated in the maternal Face-to-Face Still-Face (FFSF) procedure, in order to assess HPA axis reactivity to socio-emotional stress (i.e., maternal unresponsiveness). VPT infants exhibited a blunted salivary cortisol reactivity, which was associated with the amount of skin-breaking procedures during NICU: greater pain-related stress predicted lower salivary cortisol reactivity, adjusting for neonatal confounders. These findings further advance our knowledge of how early exposure to pain-related stress in NICU contributes to the programming of an altered HPA axis reactivity to socio-emotional stress in 3-month-old VPT infants, even in the absence of major perinatal complications.