About premature baby body language
Premature babies have different body language from term babies. This is because premature babies are less mature, smaller, more sensitive to touch and noise, and not as strong.
Your premature baby’s body language can give you clues to how they’re feeling. For example, your baby’s feelings might show in breathing rate, skin colour and body twitches.
Your premature baby’s body language and responses will change as they get bigger and stronger. For example, your baby’s movements will become less jerky as their body becomes more coordinated.
You’ll also get more obvious clues to how your baby is feeling. For example, premature babies don’t cry as much as term babies, but you’ll notice your baby crying more as they get older.
As your baby gets bigger, you’ll see changes in alertness too. For example, very young premature babies might open their eyes and make eye contact only occasionally. But older premature babies gradually have more frequent and longer spells of being awake and alert and making eye contact. At other times babies might be deeply asleep, lightly asleep, drowsy, awake and fussy, or crying.
Always expect the unexpected – premmies might not respond in the same way from one day to the next. And their body language can often change quickly. It might help to know that each day you’ll get to know your baby more and you’ll get better at reading your baby’s cues.
For help understanding your premature baby’s body language, talk to your nurse. They’ll be able to point out subtle signs that show how your baby is feeling.
Your premature baby is feeling stressed or overwhelmed: body language
When premature babies are uncomfortable, overwhelmed or stressed, they can show this in their body language.
Your premature baby might:
- wake up or stay awake and be upset
- change from being alert to being drowsy or fussy, or start crying once they’re bigger and stronger
- have a distressed look on their face or have a wrinkly forehead – sometimes called ‘brow bulge’
- make jittery or jerky movements of their arms and legs, cover their face with their hands, or splay or fist their fingers and toes
- breathe faster or have a faster heart rate
- change skin colour
- yawn, sneeze, hiccup, gag or spit up.
If you see these signs while you’re handling your baby, cover them, keep them still and do nothing for a moment. This should help them get back to balance.
If your baby is in an incubator, tell the nurse and see whether you can work together to change your baby’s environment so they’re more comfortable. For example, you might need to adjust the noise or light or your baby’s position.
Our article on helping your baby feel calm in the NICU has more tips on easing your baby’s discomfort.
Your premature baby is feeling relaxed: body language
You might be able to tell that your premature baby is relaxed and comfortable just by the fact that they aren’t showing any of the signs of being uncomfortable.
Here are some other signs that your premature baby is feeling OK. Your baby might have:
- regular, relaxed breathing
- a relaxed body
- movements that are less jerky and more gentle or smooth
- a still, alert face.
And if your baby wants to engage, they might seem very interested in looking at something, often your face. Their body will be quite still and their breathing slow.
When your baby is awake, alert and relaxed, this is the time to interact and bond with your baby. It’s also a good time to play with your baby by talking, cuddling, singing or making eye contact. It’s a good idea to balance this kind of active play with quiet activities like gentle holding and slow movements.