A device developed by B.C. researchers simulates skin-to-skin contact for babies who are too fragile to be held by their mothers.

The B.C. Women's Hospital says skin-to-skin contact helps maintain a baby's temperature and promotes bonding.

It has also been shown to stabilize babies' vital signs, helps them sleep more deeply and stimulates their brain and neurological development, according to the hospital's website.

"Babies can ultimately gain weight faster and go home sooner," the site says.

The contact has also been shown to help reduce pain, Dr. Liisa Holsti told CTV News. Holsti is a Canadian Research Chair and an associate professor in the University of British Columbia's occupational science department.

But some babies in the hospital's newborn Intensive Care Unit are too premature or ill to safely be held by their parents.

"Some babies are really, really ill and may not be able to come out of their incubator," Holsti said. Others need round-the-clock care, and their parents can't always be there to hold them.

She worked with a team of engineers from UBC and BCIT to come up with a solution to calm babies that can't be held.

Nicknamed "the Calmer," Holsti's solution is a robotic platform inside an incubator, and rises and falls like a mother's chest. Controlled by a handheld remote, the platform even has a skin-like surface and a heartbeat to simulate skin-on-skin contact.

The heartbeat sound and breathing motion are programmed to match the parent who would otherwise be holding their infant, she said.

The invention is meant to help those babies that require medical and diagnostic procedures, many of which can be painful and stressful. Strong medications can be used to manage pain, Holsti said, but they are not always effective and can have side effects.

"Research from our centre and from others has shown that the pain associated with these procedures can alter the developing brain," Holsti said.

The device is the only calmer in existence, and babies at B.C. Women's are already getting its benefits.

"We found that babies who had exposure to Calmer were much more settled when they had blood collection, and we looked at their heart rate and how that changed," Holsti said.

Holsti said her goal is to have the Calmer available to all premature babies in need, so they feel less pain and less stress during hospital stays.

If they continue to see positive results, the team will do a larger set of studies with other centres.

With a report from CTV Vancouver's Nafeesa Karim