Playing with premature babies

Playing with your premature baby helps:

  • you and your baby get to know each other
  • your baby’s brain develop
  • your baby feel loved and secure
  • your baby learn about relationships and comfort
  • your baby learn about the physical environment he can see, hear, feel and smell
  • your baby learn new skills.

At first your premature baby will be able to play for only a few minutes at a time. She might be easily overwhelmed by everything that’s going on around and inside her. As your baby grows and gets stronger, she’ll be able to play for longer.

When you first start playing with your baby, it’s a good idea to stimulate only one of his senses at a time – for example, just sight or just hearing. And you should stop playing if your baby’s body language tells you he’s had enough. He might show this by looking away, shutting his 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 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, she 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

Touching your baby is another way to start playing together.

Kangaroo care can be part of this touching. And when your baby is a bit older and your doctor says it’s OK, you could massage him. 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 your premature baby. This can be too stimulating and even slightly painful for young premmies.

Play ideas for the NICU: songs, stories and books

Your premature baby might enjoy hearing your voice and love being talked to, read to and sung to. You can do this from very early on with your baby. 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 premature 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, calorie intake 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, Neonate and Infant Program for the Music Therapy Unit, Royal Children’s Hospital, Melbourne