premature baby
Special needs

Helping the development of your premature baby

Occupational therapist Lisa Corrigan explains there is a lot you can do to connect with your infant right from the beginning.

Bonding with your premature baby and encouraging their development, can seem like a challenge, but there are ways you can make that special connection and help your newborn.

Helping the development of your premature baby

Prematurity occurs when a pregnancy lasts less than 37 weeks. Preterm infants can experience a range of challenges related to the immaturity of their nervous system and to the necessary but often unfavourable conditions of the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). The infant’s sensory experiences of bright lights, noise and at times stressful interventions, such as heel prick tests or having an IV inserted, can compromise their immature brain and impact on subsequent development.

Brain development includes sensory, social/emotional, motor and cognitive systems, which are connected and integrated throughout late foetal and early neonatal life. Occupational therapists trained in child development and sensory integration aim to minimise the negative impact of the NICU environment with the goal of improving outcomes and supporting normal development.

Treatment for the premature baby should always occur in the order of sensory system development, so that normal brain development is not interrupted.

Helping the development of your premature baby

This order is:

  • touch
  • body awareness
  • movement and balance
  • smell
  • taste
  • hearing
  • visual

The importance of touch

The tactile system is the only fully developed system at birth, hence the importance of touch and skin-to-skin contact. It is my belief that in neonatal care ‘positive touch’ is just as vital as medical interventions, since touch is the foundation block for all higher learning experiences.

Take it slowly

In the early days with baby, it is important to only stimulate one sensory system at a time to avoid overstimulation. Bear in mind that you know your baby best and are therefore in an ideal position to support development through fun, play and reading baby’s cues. Playing with your premature baby encourages bonding, brain development, a sense of security, stress reduction (for you and baby), communication and learning of new skills.

Know your premature baby’s cues

Most importantly, follow the cues your baby gives you and let them be your guide, bearing in mind you are your baby’s expert.

“I’m overwhelmed and need time out”

  • Increase or decrease in breathing
  • Increase or decrease in heart rate
  • Skin turning red or getting pale
  • Yawning
  • Hiccupping
  • Jerky movements
  • Easily startled
  • Arching of back or overextending legs/arms
  • Getting fussy
  • Gaze avoidance

“I’m in the ‘just right state’ ready to interact and play”

  • Steady breathing and heart rate
  • Alert with good eye contact
  • Smiling
  • Cooing
  • Attentive to stimuli and aware of surroundings
  • Relaxed and lying quietly
  • Reaching out to you

By watching for cues and engaging in appropriate stimulation, you can begin to help your premature baby develop their senses in a way that will aid physical and emotional growth as well as creating a loving, nurturing lifelong bond. Cherish and enjoy every minute.

More you might like:

Top newborn skin concerns
Top tips for designing a nursery
The first 72 hours

Ask Sarah

Q I’ve heard a lot about the Paleo diet and as I am very interested in reducing the amount of processed foods and grain based meals my family eats, we are considering following this diet. From what I read it seems to be a back-to-basics type of eating. Is a Paleo diet safe for children? My kids are aged seven and nine.

A The Paleo diet is one of the most fashionable diets around at the moment. It is also known as the ‘caveman diet’ and is based on cutting out processed foods, starchy foods like bread and potatoes and eating more meat, vegetables and fruit.
As fad diets go, it is not the worst but there are some good and bad sides to it. Reducing the amount of processed foods we eat is always a good idea and by doing that you will usually reduce the amount of fat, salt and sugar you eat, which is a good thing! The problem with the Paleo diet is that it also cuts out dairy (on the basis that cavemen didn’t drink milk) and this means that the diet is very low in calcium. For this reason it is really not suitable for children who do need a lot of calcium for growing bones. How did cavemen manage without dairy? They ate a lot more food than we do (up to 10,000 calories per day compared to the 2,000 most of us eat). By eating that amount of food they were able to pick up just enough calcium from green vegetables and seeds. To put it in perspective, you would need to eat 16 servings of broccoli a day to get all the calcium you need. This is easier to do if you eat 10,000 calories per day rather than 2,000.
The other problem with the paleo diet is that it is not entirely based in science. Many of the Paleo diets out there say you should not eat wheat, even though we know that cavemen did in fact eat wheat and other grains. These diets also don’t recommend that you eat blubber and the big lumps of fat that were also a large part of the caveman diet!
A final problem is that many Paleo diets encourage people to cut out beans and lentils and to get their protein from meat and fish instead. Many studies over the last few years are clear that eating too much animal protein is linked with more cancer and heart disease. Eating some vegetarian meals based on beans and lentils is a great way to get your protein without always going for meat.
Is this a diet we should follow? I think there is a lot we can learn from the Paleo diets. We could all do with eating less salt, sugar and processed foods and adding in more nuts and seeds as well as more vegetables. However, I think following a strict Paleo diet could lead to low levels of calcium and vitamin D and so it is not suitable for children or teens and adults would need to think about a calcium supplement.



Q. I’m would like to start an exercise programme that will benefit my emotional health as much as my physical health, but I don’t know which type of class would be best. Should I consider choosing from yoga, pilates, tai chi, or could you recommend a class, please?

A It’s great that you have decided to get into exercise. The benefits to you are going to be great. You’ll sleep better, have more energy, better skin, reduced stressed, not to mention all the amazing physical benefits of your clothes fitting better, and looking healthy, trim and toned! My advice to you would be to try them all. Even if some don’t offer pay-as-you-go sessions, if you get in touch directly with the instructor, they will almost always let you try it out first to see if it’s for you. All of the above things that you mentioned are great for mental health, so it really will be a personal preference as to which you go for. On top of the classes you mention, all forms of exercise will give you great mental rewards so consider the not so obvious interval training sessions, bootcamp, and circuits too, as you will also feel on top of the world after a class like that.