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Baby Care

7 Ideas for Bonding with Your Preterm Baby

Does all that NICU life permanently affect mum-baby bonding?

Verified by:
iMumz Expert Panel
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Updated on:
September 30, 2022

The Initial Phase

During the first weeks of hospitalisation, premature babies and their parents encounter difficulties in establishing early bonds and interactions, given how tough the situation is.

Once your baby is born, (s)is rushed to the NICU. In all likelihood, s(h) will be placed in an incubator. As various tubes and machines are attached to the baby, you practically hand over your parental responsibility to physicians, nurses, and even technical equipment. The emotions parents feel are intense.

There are phases of guilt, fear of failure, and self-doubt. Some parents even suffer from exhaustion and/or periods of depression.

Why is bonding important?

Let’s share a phenomenon called “hospitalism” which was already described in the 1930s and 1940s by psychoanalyst René Spitz.

Spitz observed babies and infants who were raised without a sensitive and affectionate attachment figure, e.g. infants in a children’s home. He found that those children were often shorter in height and had a smaller head circumference because of reduced brain development.

Our lesson number one is that we should influence the hospital staff to help you feed breastmilk to preterm born babies as early as possible.

For your preterm born baby, growth is even more fundamental for survival, so any kind of emotional care by you, the parents, or by the nurses will improve your baby’s development. Kangaroo care, a method of holding your baby skin-to-skin on your stomach, is very beneficial. It is important that both you and the baby feel comfortable doing this. The skin-to-skin contact will initiate the release of the hormone oxytocin in both the baby’s and your body.

Oxytocin has many positive effects: you and your baby will be more relaxed, you will feel emotionally closer to each other, and the attachment between you will intensify. Oxytocin also increases milk ejection from the mammary glands, which has a positive effect on breastfeeding and milk production overall.

7 IDEAS to Bond with your Preemie

  1. Photos of the Preemie: Get a lot of photos of the baby and put prints around you. Write positive affirmations on them. You might wonder if pics of a baby with so many tubes in him is a good idea. Trust us, it will create a positive vibes in you.
  2. Touch the Baby: Studies have shown that premature infants who are stroked and lightly massaged while they are in intensive care grow better and are more alert, active, and behaviorally mature than babies who are handled very little. Of course, the doctor has to advise because babies born very very early cannot tolerate touching. Once the doctor gives you the green signal, start by gently touching those arms and legs, since they are less sensitive at first than the trunk. Try to work up to at least 20 minutes of stroking a day.
  3. Kangaroo hold: Skin-to- skin contact can not only help you get close to your baby, it can help with her growth and development. In fact, studies have shown that babies who receive so-called kangaroo care are likely to leave the NICU sooner. Place her on your chest under your clothes. While doing this in the hospital, the staff will hand the baby in her diaper and cap and give a blanket to cover her.
  4. Sensory stimulation: In addition to touch, the baby can learn additional sensations like tasting, smelling, hearing, and seeing. When she gets these experiences, she learns to trust her environment. Make sure you don’t mask your natural fragrance with perfumes and coo to baby gently.
  5. Have conversations: The baby may look like she’s not aware of your presence but she does recognize mum and dad’s voice. Talk to her! Leave a recording of your voice, talking, singing, or reading, so that the nurses can play for your baby when you’re not around. One caution: keep the volume low since her ears are still very sound-sensitive.
  6. Eye contact: Look eye to eye. If your baby’s eyes are shielded because she’s getting photo- therapy for the treatment of jaundice, ask to have the bili lights turned off and her eyes uncovered for at least a few minutes during your visit so that you can make eye-to-eye contact while you’re doing your kangaroo cuddling or through the isolette walls.
  7. Attachment Figure: It has been quite unpleasant and stressful for your baby: all those tubes, and painful, invasive treatments, and even interruptions of resting phases as well as light and noise disturbances. Since the rest of his world is so unsettling, he needs an attachment figure. That is you. When you are around him, talking, touching, you are easing his discomfort.

Slowly, your baby will make the first attempts of self-regulation to calm down. This includes sucking on a finger or pacifier, yawning, covering eyes and ears, propping up against the bed pad or the walls of the incubator, lifting the hands to the mouth, or putting both hands together.