Senses and the Premature Baby

The Profile of a Preemie

The sensory system is a part of the nervous system that is responsible for processing sensory information. It is a group of subsystems used for detecting and understanding the world around us. Our sensory system includes:

  • vision (visual perception)
  • touch (tactile perception)
  • hearing (auditory perception)
  • taste (oral perception)
  • smell (olfactory perception)

Our senses are the link from our physical world (our environment and our surroundings) to our inside world (our brain) where we interpret the information, creating our perception of the world and space around us.

Integration of the sensory system, whereby the sensory system is well organized and responding efficiently is an integral part of development.

In the womb, a baby is curled up, cozy, warm, in the dark, listening to their mother’s rhythmic heartbeat and muted sounds from the outside world. Meanwhile, the nervous system is developing at an astonishing speed, forming thousands of essential nerve cell connections. When a baby is born prematurely,  this process is interrupted. Their sensory organs are not fully developed and must continue to grow and mature in a foreign world outside the womb. For premature babies, this new foreign outside world may be overwhelming to them. Nothing sounds quite right, nothing feels quite right, and nothing smells quite right. The input from their physical world may seem stronger. The sounds of alarms, phones, and even voices may seem louder, the lights may seem brighter, and some smells  and even touch may be overbearing to them. What may seem like normal sound, light, smell, and touch to us, may be too much for their underdeveloped sensory system to handle. This "sensory overload" is a form of stress for a preemie.

Learning about how your baby's senses form can help you to understand how and what your baby may be feeling and what you can do, as a parent, to help your preemie grow and develop to their fullest potential, well beyond your NICU days.




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