A bit of theory


Within the mother’s womb, the baby is cozy. Basic needs are well met. The baby is lulled by the movement of the mother and by the liquid surroundings. Sounds are muffled. Lighting is low. The walls of the uterus form a protective nest within which the baby lies curled up.

When a baby is born preterm, the change of environment is even more shocking to the system. The body and brain aren’t yet ready for birth, they are still too immature. The baby may find it too difficult to breathe, the senses are overwhelmed, the elements destabilizing.

Perceptions inside and outside the mother’s womb

Inside the mother’s womb Outside the womb
What the baby SEES
  • It is dark.
  • There is a feeble glow of low intensity light.
  • Lighting alternates between periods of lighter and darker (day vs. night).
  • A lot of light hits unprotected eyes.
  • The light is of variable intensity, and sometimes harsh.
  • In the hospital, there is often no difference between night and day.
What the baby HEARS
  • Noises from the outside world are muffled.
  • There are weak sounds coming from within the mother’s body (heartbeats, bowel sounds).
  • The mother’s voice is a constant, familiar sound.
  • Noises and sounds hit unprotected ears.
  • Sounds are of variable intensity. Some are very loud.
What the baby TASTES
  • Taste depends on maternal diet.
  • Tastes hit an unaccustomed palate. Breastmilk and formula each have different tastes. Oral medications and oral tube feeding, if any, taste different, too.
What the baby SMELLS
  • Smell is associated with the amniotic fluid that fills the intrauterine space.
  • Smells vary; the smell of the mother and breast are recognizable.
  • Sometimes smell indicates a harmful substance.
  • Sometimes smells are invasive if held too close to the nose.
What the baby FEELS (touch)
  • Touch is comfortable, constant and soft.
  • The amniotic fluid surrounding the baby offers global touch.
  • Temperature is stable and feels right.
  • Different caregivers touch the baby; each has a different touch.
  • Some touches are painful, although not on purpose.
  • Room temperature is colder than body temperature; it is difficult to conserve heat.
What the baby FEELS (movement)
  • The body is in fetal position.
  • Natural barriers form a cradle.
  • The body shifts with the mother’s movements and is gently rocked in the amniotic fluid.
  • Gravity exerts a pull on the body; movement is more difficult and different from it was inside the womb.
  • It is difficult to return to fetal position.
  • The body lies flat (on a mattress).
  • Changes in position are sometimes rough and abrupt.

Good to know…

The baby’s senses may be overwhelmed outside the womb, especially if the baby was born preterm. The NICU environment is not adapted for the baby’s level of development. He or she may then become stressed. Because the senses of sight, touch, and so on are still immature, it is important to protect your baby from stressful stimulations and give exposure to only one type of activity at a time. The baby may not be able to cope with more.

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