About premature baby body language

Premature babies have different body language from full-term babies. This is because premature babies are less mature, smaller, more sensitive to touch and noise, and not as strong.

For example, a premature baby’s feelings might show in breathing rate, skin colour and body twitches. These things can often change quickly, but they give you clues to how premmies are feeling.

Also, the body language of a premature baby born at 24 weeks will be different from that of a baby born at 34 weeks. For example, very premature babies might not make eye contact for as long or as often as a near-term babies.

Your premature baby’s body language and responses will change as she gets bigger and stronger. You’ll get more obvious clues to how your baby is feeling. For example, premature babies don’t cry as much as full-term babies, but you’ll notice your baby crying more as she gets older. She’ll probably start wanting to make eye contact too.

As your baby gets bigger, you’ll see more definite ‘states’ too. For example, a very young premature baby might open his eyes only occasionally. But an older premature baby will gradually have more and longer spells of being awake and alert. He might be deeply asleep, lightly asleep, drowsy, awake and alert, awake and fussy, or crying.

Always expect the unexpected – premmies might not respond in the same way from one day to the next. It might help to know that every day you’ll get to know your baby more and you’ll get better at reading your baby’s cues.

The best time to interact with your premature baby is when she’s awake and alert. This is when your baby is most likely to be calm and relaxed. It’s easier to bond with your baby when she’s awake, alert and relaxed.

Body language that shows your premature baby is feeling overwhelmed

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 he’s bigger and stronger
  • have a distressed look on his face or have a wrinkly forehead – sometimes called ‘brow bulge’
  • make jittery or jerky movements of his arms and legs, cover his face with his hands, or splay or fist his fingers and toes
  • breathe faster, or have a faster heart rate
  • change skin colour to pale, red, mottled or blue
  • yawn, sneeze, hiccup, gag or spit up.

If you see these signs while you’re handling your baby, cover her, keep her still and do nothing for a moment. This should help her 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 he’s more comfortable. For example, you might need to adjust the noise or light or your baby’s position.

Our article on helping your premature baby feel calm has more tips on easing your baby’s discomfort.

Signs that your premature baby is relaxed

You might be able to tell that your premature baby is relaxed and comfortable just by the fact that she isn’t showing any of the signs of being uncomfortable.

If your premature baby is feeling OK, you might also see that he:

  • has regular, relaxed breathing
  • has a relaxed body
  • moves in a less jerky and more gentle way
  • is still and alert and might even want to look at you or something else.

Your baby might be very interested in looking at something (often a face), and her body will be quite still and her breathing slow. This is your premature baby’s way of showing that she’s interested.

As your premature baby gets older, he’ll be able to stay awake and engage for short periods. This is the time to play with your premmie, 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.