A Canadian-developed, mattress-shaped robot is able to provide premature babies with physical contact that helps them as much as a human touch, according to a new study.

The robot, which has been given the name Calmer, was created by researchers in British Columbia. It is roughly the size and shape of a mattress in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) incubatorused for premature babies.

Medical professionals often recommend hand-hugging or other skin-to-skin contact as a way of relieving pain in babies in NICU incubators. Hand-hugging, in which a nurse or parent places their hands on a baby’s head and torso, has been shown to be effective at reducing babies’ pain while their blood is being drawn.

Calmer was given a texture similar to human skin and other features which help it mimic the feel and sound of humans, in an attempt to duplicate the skin contact benefits without the need of an actual human presence.

When a baby is placed on Calmer, it feels the skin-like substance as well as a series of gentle vibrations as the robot moves up and down along a one-centimetre track meant to simulate the sensation of being held against a beating heart.

Researchers studied the effects of Calmer on pain reduction by randomly assigning either the robot or human touch to 49 premature babies in the NICU at a Vancouver hospital and monitoring factors such as their hand movements and heart rates. Twenty-seven of the babies were given traditional hand-hugging, while 22 were placed on Calmer and kept away from direct caregiver contact.

They found that Calmer was equally effective as a human caregiver in reducing premature babies’ indications that they were in pain.

“The robot provided the same level of pain relief for infants as a human,” lead author Liisa Holsti said in a statement.

“The best treatment is for parents to hold babies skin-to-skin, but if that’s not an option, we wanted to be able to provide something else that could help.”

Holsti said she hopes Calmer’s elements will be included in the manufacturing process for future NICU incubators.

The researchers’ study was published Thursday in the medical journal Pain Reports.