Technique Gives Hope to Premature Babies

New research shows that mothers who follow a particular technique can help their premature babies grow and be healthy by interacting with them in the right way.

Technique Gives Hope to Premature Babies Zurijeta/Shutterstock

We already know that mothers can influence the health and cognitive development of their premature babies simply by talking or singing to them. Now there's another way they can help: through a little education.

A program that teaches moms of preemies on how to most effectively interact with their babies has shown to help infants develop the muscle control they need to more successfully feed from a bottle, according to a study in the journal Advances in Neonatal Care. This, in turn, leads to better growth and weight gain for the newborns, according to an earlier study published online in Journal of Perinatology.

The intervention is called H-Hope, which stands for Hospital to Home Transition—Optimizing Premature Infant's Environment. Its goal is to teach mothers how to provide the appropriate sensory stimulation for their premature babies and to learn how to interpret and respond to their babies' behavioral cues.

"Premature babies are less alert prior to feeding, and they show very subtle pre-feeding behaviors which makes it difficult for mothers to understand when they are ready to feed," explains Rosemary White-Traut, Ph.D., R.N, director of nursing research at the Children's Hospital of Wisconsin and professor emerita at the University of Illinois at Chicago, whose team is in the process of teaching hospitals and parents the technique. "The intervention helps these babies to become more awake and have more pre-feeding behaviors which, in turn, helps them to have better sucking. Successful feeding is critical because it is a primary factor for infant growth."

RELATED: How Mom's Voice Can Benefit a Preemie's Brain

Following the Technique

H-Hope focuses on teaching moms how to interact with their newborns in a way that stimulates their senses. It involves two 15-minute segments twice a day just prior to feeding from the time the baby reaches 32 weeks until one month after the baby would have been born had he gone full term. The mother learns to speak to her infant in a soothing tone to alert him of her presence, and then she provides a gentle body massage that lasts about ten minutes, maintaining eye contact with her child when the baby's eyes are open. Afterwards, the mother swaddles the child and holds him in her arms while rocking him horizontally and continuing to talk to and look at him for five minutes. Once the exercise is complete, the mother immediately feeds the baby.

Getting to Know the Baby

Next, moms learn how to recognize their baby's hunger cues, which can be difficult to detect: Whereas a full term baby might cry and place his fist in his mouth when he's hungry, a premature baby might only have the strength to slightly pull his hand toward his mouth. "Mothers learn these subtle behavioral cues, and they also learn how to modify their behaviors so that the baby is not over stimulated during the intervention," says Dr. White-Traut.

The Results

For the initial study, 183 mother-and-preterm infant pairs (the babies were born between the 29th and 34th week of pregnancy) were involved—half received the H-Hope intervention while the other half did not. Researchers found that those who did receive it not only weighed more on average at the time of discharge than those who didn't, but they also grew faster in length. The reason: The subsequent study found that after receiving the intervention, the babies' sucking during feeding improved, as monitored by a bottle connected to a sensor that measured the number of movements and the pressure exerted by their mouths.

So what's the take home message? "Moderate touch massage in conjunction with human social interaction may help stable premature infants to experience more alertness and pre-feeding behaviors prior to feeding which both lead to better sucking," says Dr. White-Traut. Premature birth is a risk factor for many developmental disorders and diseases, but this intervention certainly shows promise. As Valerie Maholmes, Ph.D., chief of the Pediatric Trauma and Critical Illness branch at the National Institute of Health's Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child and Health Development said in a statement, "Preterm infants who fail to gain sufficient weight are at a higher risk for delays and even impairments in cognitive ability and motor skills. We are hopeful that this intervention will prove to be an important tool in safeguarding the long-term health of an extremely vulnerable group of infants."

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