Reading Stress Signs in Your Premature Infant

Snuggled into the corner of her bed
Snuggled into the corner of her bed

Premature infants show very distinct signs when they are stressed or need a change in their environment. Premature infants do not respond to the same touches and soothing methods of full term infants. New parents or grandparents may think they are helping the baby, when actually, the baby needs the opposite attention.

Common signs of stress in a premature baby include changes in breathing which changes their need for oxygen, increase or decrease in heart rate, or baby shows signs of exhaustion. Obvious physical signs include hiccuping, yawning, frowning, sneezing, avoids looking at you, arching her back or neck, crying, and fussing. Normal babies do all of these things, but when they are done in a series or in combination with each other, you have to understand your baby needs a change.

Keep in mind that your baby isn’t even supposed to be out of the womb yet, so being held or stroked, rocking in a chair, lots of voices or talking, or getting too close to her face are over stimulating. While it is extremely difficult, you have learn to just let her rest. There will be plenty of time for bonding once she is healthy and ready for socialization.

These are ways that your baby can help soothe herself:

  • Clasp her hands together
  • Put her hands to her mouth
  • She can hold your finger
  • Snuggles into a special place in her bed, usually a corner or crevice
  • Tucks her arms and legs in close to her body

These are signs that your baby is happy and ready to socialize:

  • Her eyes are open or have a bright appearance
  • She focuses on your face or another object
  • She has a normal breathing pattern
  • Her body is relaxed
  • She may coo or make soft happy sounds

Reading your babies signals will help you both interact peacefully and make the most of your time together. Your baby is eager for your touch, but you have to learn to work together as to not overdo it. Gradually work up your interaction time and find a happy medium. Skin to skin contact is a great way to soothe your preemie baby without providing too much stimulation. Remind her family or caregivers of her signals so she gets the maximum amount of rest in addition to attention.

Our daughter routinely showed her stress with sneezing and hiccups. She also did what one nurse dubbed “hallelujah hands” where she would put up her arms and stretch out her fingers like “hallelujah I’ve had enough!” She was easily startled by light and sound, so her hands would fly up as a reaction. She is now 4 months old and still put her hands up every now and then. She has gone from being held 1 hour a day into a baby that can‘t go more than 5 minutes without being held. Don’t be afraid that your preemie doesn’t want to be held--she will get there!



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