Learn how to interpret your preemie’s behavior, and what you can do to help her cope and to support her development.
Many babies born early have difficulty staying awake, taking in sights and sounds, and responding positively to touch. A preemie may be using a lot of her energy to eat, grow and block out intense light and sound and has little energy left for social interaction.
Sometimes parents feel inadequate if they are unable to establish eye contact or to feel the special bond created by positive responses to touching and looking at each other. Rest assured these early difficulties are normal.
Let your baby be your guide to interaction. At first, when you try to look at and talk to your baby, she may look away, fall asleep, or become limp. Your baby is signaling that she's not ready to look, listen, and move all at the same time. If that's the case, limit your interaction to letting your baby just look at your face. Later you can use a soft, whispering voice to encourage her to follow the movement of your head as you slowly move it from side to side. But for the time being, respect your baby's signals by looking away or by being quiet. You're giving her a break so she can get ready for more interaction. Feeding is an especially difficult time for many fragile infants because it takes so much concentration and organization to eat, look, and listen. Being quiet during this time might be the best strategy. Your baby will signal when she can handle more stimulation.
Understanding a preemie's signals
"I'm overwhelmed " signals that a preemie might need to slow down or take a break include:
- faster breathing or pauses in breathing
- bearing down (as if having a bowel movement)
- paling or reddening of skin color
- changing body tension, such as extending legs or arms or going limp
- sudden jerky movements, twitches, startles
- sticking out tongue
- getting fussy and staying that way for a long time
- looking away during social interaction
- going to sleep when he's supposed to be awake
"I'm ready" signals that a baby is more organized and able to handle incoming information include:
- steady breathing rate
- stable skin color
- soft movements of arms and legs
- quiet alertness
- looking steadily at a face or object
- going to sleep and sleeping peacefully at appropriate times so he's got energy, when awake, to take in information
Other helpful tips for supporting your preemie:
Provide a soothing environment. Your baby may be sensitive to light, sound, or new experiences so be especially careful when she is tired or trying to concentrate on difficult skills such as feeding or listening to your voice. Be aware of places and situations that tend to be overwhelming to her and try to avoid them. Just taking a fragile infant to a grocery store may be too much sensory input; she may need more time and maturity to be able to handle all the stimulation a trip like this creates.
Be aware of pacing and timing. Be sensitive to your baby's need to wake on her own. Preterm babies are working on organizing their sleep-wake schedules as well as coping with caregiving from different people. Look for signals that she is ready for play but be sure to give your baby pauses when she needs to recover or take a nap.
Offer continuity and predictability. Just like most adults, babies need to know what to expect next. It reduces anxiety and helps them perform better. Providing a set daily schedule, using the same caregiver, and putting the baby to sleep in the same bed are examples of how to can create an organized and predictable world for them. This helps them feel safe so they relax and learn new skills more easily.
Supplement your baby's efforts to help herself. As they grow, babies learn to do things for themselves, and they feel the pleasure of success. However small, attempts to calm themselves—sucking on a hand, for example—are rewarding and set the stage for more tries. A fragile baby may need additional help. One way is to support her shoulder so she can move her hand to her mouth to suck on it more easily. Another is using your arm to let her brace her foot so she feels more stable. These small supports have a big impact on your baby's achievements.
Handle and position her carefully. When your baby is awake, it is important to move her gently and slowly. Babies who have been born early are still working hard to move smoothly and to keep their arms and legs from dangling or extending. Holding your child close so she feels support and warmth from your body or swaddling her in a blanket will be necessary until her movements are more purposeful and controlled. Preterm babies sometimes have difficulty with fast movements, and you're likely to see "I'm overwhelmed" signals when they are moved quickly or without a blanket or body support.
Look out for babies’ own strategies for becoming more organized. These include:
- grasping and holding on to blankets, your finger, or other objects
- bracing their feet on the bedding
- putting their hands on their face or into their mouth
- sucking on a pacifier or a finger
- tucking their bodies by bending arms and legs forward
You'll soon be familiar with your own baby's special ways of communicating and be able provide the support she needs to interact with the world.