1. Newborns
  2. Premature babies
  3. Play & learning

Playing with premature babies in the NICU

0-3 months

You can play with your premature baby while she’s in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) by making faces, singing and smiling. Playing helps you and your baby bond and helps her learn about the world.

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. 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 it doesn’t go well every time. Some days your baby might get agitated or overstimulated or just not respond.

Play ideas for the NICU

Try the following ideas to enrich your baby’s experience in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).

Sight and touch
Your baby might enjoy having something to look at – for example, a soft toy, or pictures of your family stuck to the sides of her cot. Very young premature babies might not be able to, or even want to, look at things other than faces yet. Also, check with the hospital staff before you put anything into your baby’s cot.

Babies like to look at familiar patterns, especially faces. But they also like having new things to look at, so you can change things from time to time.

Once your premature baby can control his eye movements, you can slowly move your face in front of him, waggle your fingers or make funny faces.

Touching your baby is another way to start playing with your baby. 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 her.

Some nurseries have a pram that you can use to take babies for a walk around the nursery.

Singing and reading
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 – for example, if you sing softer and slower when baby is unsettled – it can improve your baby’s heart rate, sleeping, calorie intake and sucking.

Singing is good for you too. It lets you breathe deeply and can help you feel more relaxed.

Your voice and facial expressions let your baby know that you’re listening to what he’s telling you with his body language.

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

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Last updated or reviewed
12-05-2016

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Raising Children Network is supported by the Australian Government. Member organisations are the Parenting Research Centre and the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute with The Royal Children’s Hospital Centre for Community Child Health.

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