Why premature babies feel stressed in the NICU

Premature babies can experience two kinds of stress in the NICU.

They can have acute stress and pain from having heel pricks, being ventilated, having an IV inserted or even just being washed.

Living in a noisy and bright environment and having lots of people coming and going every day is also very uncomfortable for tiny and extremely sensitive premature babies.

By watching how your baby behaves and responds to his environment, you can learn to read your premature baby’s body language. This will help you tell when he’s feeling stressed or uncomfortable.

Tips for calming your premature baby in the NICU

Your premature baby’s nurse is always watching for signs of stress and discomfort in your baby’s responses.

These signs might be changes in your baby’s heartbeat, breathing or blood pressure, and changes in the way she’s behaving – for example, she might be making jerky movements or crying.

The nurse manages your baby’s pain by giving him drugs or sugar water, or by changing his environment. For example, the nurse might give him a dummy, wrap or unwrap him, or turn down the lights.

What you can do
If your baby is in an incubator and you see signs that she doesn’t seem happy, you can help her stay relaxed and calm. The key is to watch your baby’s reactions. If what you do seems to calm your baby, keep doing it. If it doesn’t, stop.

For example, you can help your baby feel calm by:

  • giving him a dummy to suck – you can use a dummy even if your baby is ventilated
  • positioning or nesting him so that he can’t jerk around too much but can still suck his fingers
  • wrapping him
  • gently touching your baby by putting your hands on his head and bottom
  • stopping or slowing your touch, quietening your voice, dimming lights or making things quieter if he seems  overwhelmed
  • giving your baby skin-to-skin contact, through kangaroo care, if the hospital staff say he’s ready. Even ‘medically unstable’ babies can be more stable while receiving kangaroo care.

If your baby is older and you’re handling her, she might feel stressed because of the handling. You can help her relax and feel calm by stopping handling her or slowing down what you’re doing.

Hearing their mother’s voice can improve premature babies’ feeding, lower their heart rate, improve the oxygen level in their blood, and produce a calm, alert state, even if their hearing system is still developing.

Working with NICU staff

It’s a good idea to ask the NICU staff about the NICU policy on minimising stress, pain and disruption for premature babies. The policy will say what staff can do to keep your premature baby’s world as gentle as possible. It might be things like reducing noise and light, giving pain relief or organising your baby’s care to fit in with his sleep.

It’s OK to advocate for your baby if you notice something that doesn’t seem right or if you think that your baby is in pain. For example, if you notice that your baby’s environment is too bright or too noisy, you can ask the staff whether they could dim the lights or make the NICU less noisy.

The goal is for you to work together with the nursing and medical staff as a team looking after your baby. Being respectful and open with one another works best.

It’s also important to look after yourself, because your baby can pick up on your stress. Our articles on coping with the NICU experience and understanding your feelings about premature birth have tips on making things easier for yourself.