Why play is good for sick or premature babies in the NICU
Playing with your sick or premature baby helps your baby:
- get to know you
- develop in all areas, including their brain
- feel loved and secure
- learn about relationships and comfort
- learn about the physical environment they can see, hear, feel and smell
- learn new skills.
Play with sick or premature babies in the NICU: what it looks like
Even though your sick or premature baby is in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), you can still play with them. For young babies, play is about gentle, enjoyable interactions with you.
At first, babies might be able to play and interact for only a few minutes at a time. They might be easily overwhelmed by everything that’s going on around and inside them. As babies grow and get stronger, they’ll be able to play for longer.
When you first start playing with babies, it’s a good idea to stimulate only one of their senses at a time – for example, just sight or just hearing. And you should stop playing if your baby’s body language tells you they’ve had enough. They might show this by looking away, shutting their eyes or getting fussy.
Don’t worry if play doesn’t go well every time. Some days your baby might get agitated or overstimulated or just not respond.
Play ideas for the NICU: things to look at
Your sick or premature baby might enjoy having something to look at, especially if it’s your face. In fact, very young premature babies might not want to look at anything other than faces.
After a while, your baby might like watching you gently waggle your fingers or move your head slowly from side to side. And as your baby gets stronger, they might like having new things to look at. Some NICUs have prams that you can use to take babies for walks to look at new things.
Play ideas for the NICU: touch and massage
When your baby is older or well enough and your doctor or nurse says it’s OK, you could massage them. Most NICUs have a physiotherapist who can teach you how. Massage is a great way to bond with your baby, and it also helps your baby gain weight.
It’s a good idea to avoid using your fingertips to touch premature babies. This can be overstimulating, stressful and even slightly painful for young premmies.
Play ideas for the NICU: songs, stories and books
Your baby might enjoy hearing your voice when you talk, read and sing to them. You can do this from very early on. Try singing or talking softly to keep the noise level down in the NICU.
You might hum to your baby or sing the same song over and over. Or you could make up a song using your baby’s name or what’s happening around you. If you want to play music to your baby in hospital, just check with the medical staff first.
Babies learn to recognise songs and tunes quickly and also learn that they can mean certain things. For example, some songs mean it’s time to go to sleep, some might mean it’s nappy change time, and so on.
When singing matches how your baby is feeling, it can improve your baby’s heart rate, sleeping, feeding and sucking. This can be as simple as singing softer and slower when baby is unsettled.
Singing is good for you too. It helps you breathe deeply and can help you feel more relaxed.
Very young babies don’t use their voice very much, but they do use their face and arms and legs to ‘talk’. I try to find out whether they’re ready to be with me. If they’re not, my talking and singing will be supportive and soothing – I’ll use a breathy voice to sing a lullaby. My sounds go down at the end of the phrase, and I keep my voice quite low in pitch. When the baby is awake and ready, I’ll create a playful mood with tunes, with nonsense words, ‘pah’ or ‘tee-tee’ sounds, and make the tune repeat.
– Helen Shoemark, Associate Professor of Music Therapy, Temple University