Understanding Your Preemie’s Signals

February 18, 2015

How can I know what my preemie needs or wants?  I just wish I could understand my preemie.  If you find yourself thinking these things, you are not alone.  You are also in luck.  There are signs and signals our preemies give us even when they are only a few days old; tiny, and premature.  Even when they are still “supposed” to be inside mom, we can learn to understand them.

Here are a few signs or signals your baby might give you, especially in the early days.

  • Stop signs: This is when your baby holds out their hand, fingers spread, kind of like saying “talk to the hand” only they are telling us “I have had enough!”  If you get this sign from your baby, it’s usually time to back off.  You might see this when the nurses are changing them or giving meds or something of that nature.
  • Yawning: You might be thinking, I know this one, my baby is tired.  Well yes, but this is also a signal that your baby is overstimulated.  You might notice this after your baby has seen a bunch of new things or tried a few new things.  Our daughter, Haley, really struggled if she had too many different visitors in one day.  Preemies get overstimulated very easily.
    Haley, our preemie,  demonstrating the use of Stop signs. Compliments of Nicole Polk Photography
    Haley demonstrating the use of Stop signs.
    Compliments of Nicole Polk Photography
  • Turning red, rapid heart rate, and rapid respiratory rate: All are signs your baby is stressed and needs a break.  Your baby is telling you “I need a break, this is too much.”  Sometimes, when you first start trying feedings, you will see this.  Just take a break and try again later.
  • Eyes open, regular heart rate, overall just looks calm: These are signs your baby is enjoying whatever is going on.  This is a good time to interact with them.  Speaking quietly to your baby when they are like this is great.

When they get a little bigger and are ready to take bottles or start breastfeeding you might see these additional signs.

  • Sucking on thumb or hand: This is usually a sign your baby is hungry and ready to eat.  This is a good time to try breast feeding if you desire to do that or give a bottle. Often, your baby’s nurse will notice this and mention it to the doctor and see if it might be time to start offering bottles or asking mom to breastfeed.
  • Lips closed tight, eyes closed: This usually means your baby is not interested in eating.  You are less likely to have success with a feeding if your baby is acting this way.

Just like babies still in mom’s womb, our preemies develop their own schedule.  While pregnant moms might notice certain times during the day their baby is more active than others, the same is true for their preemie counterparts.  Our preemies have times they are very sleepy, but also times they are awake and alert.  It is so important to let them sleep when they are sleepy and to encourage plenty of time for them to sleep.  When they are sleeping they are growing – and we all know preemies need to grow.

Those are just a few signs to help you understand what your preemie is trying to tell you. We were incredibly blessed to have a wonderful nurse teach us all of this. It was great to begin to see our daughter display many of these signs and signals during her time in the NICU and even once she came home. Remember all babies are different and in time you will learn your own baby’s individual signs and signals.  Before you know it, you’ll know what they want before they want it.