Babies born prematurely come into the world smaller and often needing help at the start of life. Preemies are often at risk for developmental delays and may have a hard time catching up initially. Even babies born 36 to 37 weeks are considered premature, even if they didn’t spend time in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).
There is a reason babies take 40 weeks to be born. Those final weeks of growth in utero are critical to your baby’s brain and lung development. The good news is, by the time your child turns 2, she will likely have closed the developmental gap. But she needs your help. Here are some good practices to ensure your baby becomes stronger during that first year of life.
Keep me warm
Preemies get cold easily due to lacking a layer of baby fat and burning calories to stay warm. Keep him swaddled or put him down in a sleep sack. Swaddling also helps by bringing arms and legs close to the body, which will help as baby learns to reach out.
Feed me breast milk
It often isn’t easy to breastfeed at first, especially since preterm infants haven’t yet developed the suck/breath/swallow reflexes that nursing requires. But be patient, this will come. Use a hospital-grade breast pump to start, so baby benefits from your nutrient-rich milk. If he has a difficult time latching on, call a lactation or feeding specialist. Mom Alexis Faber nursed her son Jack for the first year but it took three weeks for her son to transition to the breast. “Pumping made me feel like I was doing what I could for my baby. It’s a real around-the-clock effort initially, and it would have been easy to give up. But my son didn’t have a sick visit his first year and I think that was because of breast milk.”
Don’t worry so much about me
As parents, we have a tendency to worry about our baby, especially if she starts out being frail. But the good news is, most preemies grow and thrive. “So don’t worry so much,” advises Kerry Kaufman, an early intervention specialist with Le Bonheur Early Intervention and Development Program. “Preemies do catch up if there aren’t other medical issues. They just need extra time to develop, time they didn’t get in the womb.”
Give me lots of tummy time
Baby learns best about her world when exploring from a play mat. Sitting up and moving on her own helps to strengthen neck, shoulder, and trunk muscles. That will improve muscle tone and enables baby to hold her head still. “It also helps with cognition,” notes XX. Since the preemie’s head size is generally larger relative to her body size, our baby may sometimes fuss. (It can be hard work, after all.) But over time, she’ll get the hang of it.
Make me ask for things
Preemies can sometimes be late talkers or movers because we’re so busy doing for them. Arrange objects so they must ask for what they want instead of automatically handing it to them. When sitting on the floor, let her reach out to grab favorite toys, “Letting them explore the world helps move them on to the next developmental milestone,” says Kaufman.
Have my hearing and vision tested
Preemies should have their hearing and vision tested every six months until age 2. These babies can have late on-set hearing problems. Work with her so she must track objects with her eyes or listen closely to sounds.
Don’t compare me to others
It’s easy for parents to compare their babies to others and wonder why their child isn’t reaching the same milestones as those at the same age. “Be aware of developmental milestones but adjust for your baby’s prematurity,” says Jodie Jennings, a physical therapist and pediatric clinical specialist at Baptist Rehab.
Touch, talk, read, and play with me
Babies learn best when exposed to stimulating activities. By reading or singing to your baby, playing peek-a-boo, and talking about your daily tasks, baby will learn and grow, notes developmental peditrician Debra Hanna with the Boling Center for Deelopmental Disabilities. Before age 2, keep media to a minimum. After 2, limit viewing to one half-hour a day.
Ask about early intervention
For babies who are at risk for developmental delays, early intervention is the best way to help your child. The Tennessee Early Intervention System (TEIS), provides early intervention services for children with special needs. Call (800) 852-7157 to learn more. The March of Dimes also helps provide information for parents of preemies. Call 570-1722 or go to marchofdimes.com. Or, join the online community of NICU parents at shareyourstory.org.