These tips describe the major practices that all children
need for peak development.
Premmies are in extra, consistent need of these practices.
They will get into their growing bodies and brains every day.
1. Keep your child safe
Your premmie's beautiful brain is made to be "plastic", especially in the first 3 years.
This is such a gift as the brain continually connects and changes its architecture.
However, if your child gets a serious knock on the head, things can become worse, not better.
So, set the safety rules in your house to protect young brains - helmets when riding,
seat belts for high chairs and cars and eternal vigilance on your part.
2. Make excellent nutrition a high priority
In the hospital, weight gain rather than nutrition was a large focus (at least to you). If your baby received expressed breast milk, excellent nutrition could be easily ticked off. However when premmies start to eat solids, they still need the very best nutrition possible to feed a hungry body and brain. "Ordinary" empty calories won't do. The food must have all the important nutrients to allow the body and brain develop the best it can. So, if you have a picky eater, use all your culinary skills to get nutritious food into your premmie.
Sleep is as important as air, food and water for your child's development. There are many developmental processes that occur during sleep. One is the consolidation of memories - that is, LEARNING. If you have a baby who does not sleep well after about 6 months, get some professional help. We do not recommend using controlled crying (i) it is stressful to the baby (see Tip 7 below) and (ii) it may interfere with the very important attachment relationship (see Tip 5 below).
4. Talk to your baby
Talk to your baby as if he can understand you. Talk as if she is your most trusted friend. Talk about the weather, the feel of cold
wipes on a warm bottom, about the snail crawling across the leaf and the state
of the economy. Leave little spaces, expecting your "friend" to answer back, and in a little while he will. Then you will have back-and-forth conversations where you say wise words and your baby babbles back. All this talking, these words and their meanings, get laid down in your baby's brain. She will start to understand many things you say before she can actually sound the words herself. Talking (and singing and reading) increase your child's vocabulary and knowledge about the world. It also feeds into the attachment relationship.
Read about the Talk With Me Baby Program developed in America: https://d3n8a8pro7vhmx.cloudfront.net/twmb/pages/42/attachments/original/1462246679/About.pdf?1462246679
5. Keep the attachment relationship continuously "on"
Babies (and especially premmies) have to learn to trust their parents . They do simple things to keep us close so they can feel safe
- gazing, crying, waving arms towards us. When we respond to their needs, quickly, consistently and with good humour, the baby can start to relax. They will cry less because they know that you
will come when you are needed. They become less nervous and anxious, and this then helps sleep and digestion, as well as the critical safe relationship between mother (parent) and baby.
This safe haven (you!) will get into their psyche for life. Your modelling of relationship will become what they expect from others and what they are free to give to others. Even learning is easier when the baby/toddler/child has that inherent feeling of "safe haven" to leave from and go back to. Raising Premmies together with Safe Sleep Space run group programs to help parents foster secure attachment relationships.
There is something magical about touch for human beings. Several studies found that when hospitalised premmies were gently massaged for 10 days, they put on almost 50% more weight. This is why kangaroo care is found to provide so many benefits to still-hospitalized babies. Sick premmies are often not touched much to keep them medically stable. When your baby is healthy enough, get touch onto every part of her body. Just be careful that your touch is not felt as being unpleasant. I once watched a very loving dad rub his thumb gently up and down the sole of his little baby's foot. Every time he did this, she moved her foot. He thought this was good, whereas I thought she may be starting her relationship with him trying to get away.
7. Reduce stress
Stress is toxic to our brains, but especially to little developing brains. Premmies have some stress from necessary hospital procedures. When you take over looking after your baby, you want him to learn that you will notice his stress and change what is happening. This means (i) noticing subtle signs of stress (ii) changing what you are doing or the pace of what you are doing. For example, if your baby's skin changes colour while you are changing her nappy, you can cover her over and stop for a moment and then proceed more slowly. Your baby will start to understand that you respond to his need not to become overwhelmed, and that helps him learn you are safe to be with (secure attachment). Raising Premmies can teach you how to reduce stress in your premature baby.
8. Read to your baby
Read in the hospital, read at home, read at bedtime, read as a happy snuggly break during the day. Children who are read to every day develop many extra skills to use in their lives, including a love of books and reading. Mem Fox, the children's author, says babies should have 1000 books read to them in their first year. And, it doesn't matter if it's the same book 1000 times.
9. Play with your premmie
Play, just like talking and reading, teaches lots of skills to little children. It is very handy to have a repertoire of games that you can use in any place and at any time. There are too many kinds of games that can be used to describe here, but one I have used over and over with little children in my life is drawing on their back. The child has to guess what I'm drawing. Right from toddlers to pre-teens, my grandchildren would line up for their turn at this game. What did it give them? - imagination, visualisation of shapes, the ability to notice details, language, a nice touch on their back (and a quiet, still time to rest their bodies). For me, I got to cuddle children who would otherwise have grown out of wanting cuddles. Raising Premmies provides parents with repertoires of development-targeted games that can be used anywhere.
10. Get physical
There is now lots of evidence for the positive effect of physical activity on brain development. There are many studies that show the advantages of physical exercise. One huge study of Australian and New Zealand children found that those who were taught to swim at an early age did better at school in later years. Swimming has the advantages of making lungs fill to capacity, and the left-right movements will strengthen the connections between the two brain hemispheres. Lungs and these specific brain connections are often weakened in premmies.Physical activity does a lot to keep bodies healthy and brains continuously reconnecting.
11. AND THE LAST TIP - FOR YOU
Having a baby is stressful and exhausting and even more so for many mothers of premmies. About 10-15% of new mothers get post-natal depression, but that number jumps to about 60% in mothers of premmies. Just like your baby, the stress you have been through can get right down into the neurotransmitters and hormones of your body. It's no-one's fault, but excessive stress leaves "memories" in our very bodies. Sometimes the best way to help your premmie is to really look after yourself. If you are having difficulties coping with everyday life, get some help. Call us at Raising Premmies.
The Did You Know? page has continued scientific updates about these topics and other issues for Raising Premmies. The Useful Links page can guide you to web resources that give further information on these topics.