Generally, babies reach certain milestones at different stages of their chronological age, which is calculated from the date of birth. However, the development of preterm babies during the first two years is measured based on their corrected age, which is their chronological age adjusted for the number of weeks of prematurity. For example, if a preterm infant was born at a gestational age of 32 weeks, the corrected age would be 10 months old when thechronological age is 1 year old.
The health of preterm infants should be the top, if not sole, priority for parents as these infants are particularly vulnerable after birth. However, overprotection can become a hindrance to the development of preterm infants. Hence, parents should learn to strike a balance between the health and development of their baby. Research shows that providing appropriate training in a timely manner can facilitate the overall development of preterm babies.
Progressive training should be provided to premature infants, starting from the easiest ones. Parents should pay careful attention to the response of their baby, and help the baby grow from a helpless newborn to an active explorer who can adapt himself to the environment. Training can be provided to preterm infants in three aspects:
- Interaction between parents and the baby
Preterm infants feel safer with a close parental bond, which serves as the fundamental step in their social development. Parents should establish and strengthen their relationship with the baby step by step. When the baby is awake, parents can engage in face-to-face interaction with it by encouraging it to touch the parents’ face and talking to it. When the baby makes non-spontaneous limb movements or noises, parents can gently describe the baby's gesture, or immediately imitate its noises in response.
- Nurturing emotional development
As most preterm infants are weaker than their full-term counterparts, they may have less exposure to new things and challenges due to overprotection from their parents. This can cause preterm infants to appear relatively emotionally or psychologically dependent on their parents. Parents should guide and help their baby develop adaptive skills by providing them with the time and space to respond to the environment. Under safe circumstances, parents can leave their children to cry for a while. Once the baby knows how to sit, parents should encourage the baby to get up by itself after falling over.
Diversified stimulation through different sensory modes should be provided to guide babies to react, thereby facilitating their brain and physical development. Preterm babies tend to be placed on their backs in bed for a prolonged period after birth. Various training activities should be conducted at home to build the baby's mobility.
Parents can read the Big Feet Playground–Sensorimotor and Physical Activities for Children 0-3 Years book published by a team of physiotherapists of Heep Hong Society in 2015 to come up with training games to play with their baby at home based on his corrected age, in order to enhance his neurological coordination and motor skills. However, preterm infants tend to overreact to sensory stimulation. Parents must pay attention to the reaction of the infant and provide stimuli progressively. If parents have any enquiries about training activities, they should consult a physiotherapist.
Training for preterm babies during their first six months of life are generally focused on their emotional and adaptive capabilities. Activities should be appropriate for the capabilities of the infant to allow it to enjoy the sensory games and lay a solid foundation for subsequent training. After the first half year, preterm babies should be encouraged to be more active. Parents should monitor the performance of their baby and help it achieve different developmental targets at certain ages.