Touch and holding for sick or premature babies in the NICU
Touch is the first of a baby’s senses to mature.
When your sick or premature baby is ready for gentle touching and holding, it will help them feel cared for and supported. Touch can be the beginning of your relationship with your baby, and it’s a good way to bond with your baby.
Sick or premature babies in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) have many people touching them in many different ways. The touching can often be stressful, uncomfortable and upsetting for babies – for example, if they’re having a heel prick or being ventilated.
But when you touch and hold your baby, you do it to help your baby feel calm, cared for and loved. Your baby will get to know that you’re the one who touches and holds them in this special way. They’ll learn that when you touch them, they won’t be overwhelmed by sudden changes, rough handling or too much stimulation.
Try not to use perfume or scented deodorant when you’re holding your sick or premature baby. These can interfere with your baby’s recognition of your smell.
Getting started on touch and holding for sick or premature babies
If your baby is very small or sick, you might not be able to hold them yet – but you can still touch them. Just like any baby, your baby in the NICU needs the comfort of human touch. But you do need to be very careful and gentle when you touch sick or premature babies.
You can start with something simple, like holding your baby’s hand or letting them hold your finger. It’s best to do this on its own and not to talk or sing to your baby at the same time. This is because your baby might find both things together overwhelming.
It can help to say something before you touch your baby so they know something is about to happen and that it should be pleasant.
As your baby grows and gets stronger, you’ll be able to sing or talk to your baby while you touch or hold them.
You could try deep touch, which is also called comfort holding.
To do this you pretend that your hands are like the walls of the uterus. Place cupped hands on your baby’s head, feet, bottom or back and keep them there with constant pressure. Watch your baby’s monitors to see how they’re coping with this new stimulation.
Your baby might be happy with comfort holding at some times and on some days, but not others. Watch to see whether your baby likes one kind of touch better than others.
Premature babies: avoid stroking or patting
For premature babies, it’s a good idea to avoid stroking, patting or using your fingertips across their skin. After a while, this can be slightly painful for new premmies. As your baby gets older and their skin isn’t so sensitive, they might enjoy patting and stroking.
Just relax with your baby. Feel your baby breathing. Your rewards for sensitive touching and holding will come later – with a close, loving and physically relaxed relationship with your baby.
Kangaroo care for sick or premature babies
Kangaroo care is simply holding your sick or premature baby in an upright position, skin to skin, on your chest.
Your baby’s nurse will place your baby on your chest and cover them with a warm blanket. Then you can sit back, relax, listen to your baby breathing and feel them relax into you. It’s as if you’re making a protective mini-pouch for them.
Your baby’s nurse will help you work out how long to give your baby kangaroo care. To start with, it might just be a few minutes, building up to several hours as your baby grows.
Quiet humming or singing during kangaroo care is a great combination if your baby can cope with multiple forms of stimulation.
You’ll need to check with your baby’s nurse or doctor before doing kangaroo care. Some very tiny or ill babies can’t have kangaroo care if they need a lot of monitors and other equipment. Kangaroo care also won’t do as much good if your baby is stressed.
Most hospitals encourage kangaroo care. But in some hospitals the staff might not suggest it, so you might need to ask your baby’s nurse. It’s a good idea to work with your baby’s nurse to have kangaroo care as part of your baby’s care plan.
Kangaroo care can help you become sensitive to and understand your baby’s signals. This is all part of bonding with your baby. It can also help you adapt to the birth experience.
Premature babies: benefits of kangaroo care
Kangaroo care has particular benefits for premature babies. It can improve their:
- blood oxygen levels
- weight gain
- motor development.
It can also help premature babies:
- maintain stable body temperature, heartbeat and breathing
- sleep better
- get started with breastfeeding
- cry less
- go home sooner.
And it has long-term physical and behaviour benefits.
Massage can be good for babies in the NICU when they’re old enough and well enough. Your baby’s nurse or doctor will be able to tell you whether your baby is ready to be massaged. Most NICUs have a physiotherapist who can teach you how to massage so it isn’t too overstimulating or stressful for your baby.