If mothers cuddle their very premature babies before and during painful medical procedures, it helps them recover from pain, a new study finds.

The research results could help very premature babies, who spend their first months in incubators, cope while in intensive care.

Skin-to-skin contact between a preemie, born at 28 to 31 weeks, and its mother can lessen the severity of the pain and help the infants recover, McGill University researchers found.

Previously, this approach, called kangaroo care, was only used with babies born between 32 to 36 weeks, on the assumption that younger babies wouldn't benefit.

The research team tested the babies' reactions — both with their mothers and alone — by pricking their heels' to obtain a blood sample.

The babies that were held for 15 minutes before the procedure and throughout its duration had lower pain scores 90 seconds after it than those that were merely swaddled. Their facial expressions showed pain for 50 per cent less time than those babies who weren't cuddled.

Recovery from the procedures was also swifter, usually within a few minutes, versus over three minutes for the swaddled babies.

Pain was measured using the Premature Infant Pain Profile, an assessment of a baby's facial reaction, heart rate and blood oxygen levels.

"The pain response in very preterm neonates appears to be reduced by skin-to-skin maternal contact," says Celeste Johnston, a McGill researcher, in a release.

"This response is not as powerful as it is in older preterm babies, but the shorter recovery time using KMC is important in helping maintain the baby's health."

The study is published Wednesday in the journal BMC Pediatrics.