For 40 weeks of pregnancy, the womb is the perfect sensory world for development. If your baby is born early, you will be acutely aware of how different the sensory environment of the neonatal unit (NICU) is. The lifesaving procedures your baby goes through can be overwhelming on a sensory level –

  • Touch in the NICU often involves pain – needles, tubes and just being touched can be painful for your prem baby
  • The sterile smells of the unit can overwhelm his sensitive sense of smell
  • The bright lights and jarring sounds of monitor alerts and alarms may overstimulate him.

While you know that these noxious sensory inputs are critical interventions for a prem baby, did you know that there are some wonderful ways you can nurture your newborn’s sensory systems that will protect his delicate senses? We call this sensory developmental care.

Sensory developmental care has been developed and is used in many neonatal unit’s across the world. It is the best way you can care for your prem baby in the neonatal unit, which will positively impact his long-term development.

When your baby is still medically fragile, his medical needs take precedence over sensory developmental care. You will need to listen to and support the team caring for your baby. This is also the time for you to rest when you can, express milk often so that your baby can get lifesaving breastmilk and take care of yourself emotionally. This is a hard journey for you both

Once your baby is medically stable, you can implement sensory developmental care, which involves taking sensory principles of the womb world and creating them in the NICU.

Here are Ten Touch ideas for prem babies that support their development best:

  1. Deep still touch helps your prem baby feel contained, much like the constant touch of the womb walls – place both of your warmed hands open over your baby’s body using firm pressure. Do not move your hands, relax your shoulders and keep the pressure steady and still. Within a short time you will feel your baby relax and his breathing steady. You can use this strategy after painful interventions and to help him settle.
  2. Create boundaries for your prem baby to move up against. A boundary around his head is particularly soothing for him as it creates a sense of containment similar to the womb – use rolled blankets or special positioning aids to contain him.
  3. Let your baby hold onto your finger or offer finger rolls for him to grasp onto if he splays his fingers.
  4. Hold your baby as soon as possible. Do not be discouraged by all the pipes, drips or even CPAP. Your touch is what he craves.
  5. Kangaroo Care is very beneficial for your baby and is used extensively in neonatal units throughout the world. Place your prem baby with only a nappy and a hat on, naked on your naked chest. Cover him with a blanket or wear a kangaroo care top. As a mum, your chest temperature will raise a degree or two to warm your baby up and will maintain a constant temperature for him. Kangaroo your prem baby as much as possible as soon as your team gives the go ahead.
  6. Maintain a constant temperature in the incubator or in Kangaroo care.
  7. Cluster painful interventions so that your prem baby can have undisturbed periods of sleep as much as possible. If the intervention becomes too much for him and he is stressed, give him a time out by stopping the intervention and giving deep still touch.
  8. Sucking on a dummy – your baby has more touch receptors in his mouth than anywhere else on his body. He will be soothed by non-nutritive sucking. During stressful or painful procedures, give your baby a prem baby dummy to suck on. In addition to soothing him, this will facilitate maturation of the sucking reflex.
  9. Swaddle him when he is being removed from the incubator and as he gets older, swaddle him in the incubator too. He should be swaddled with his legs slightly bent towards his tummy and with his hands together near his face.
  10. Swaddling at bath time will help to contain his little reflexes and keep him in a curled-up position. This will help him to feel contained and calm for bathtime.