Enhancing Development: The Significance of Early Sensory Care for Preterm Infants

Dr. Snehal Gadhecha

Neonatal & Paediatric Physiotherapist

Certified Early Intervention in neonatal (pre-terms) & High risk developmental care specialist (UK),

Early Intervention in Sensory Care (London)

Feeding Specialist (PIOMI, SOFFITM, USA)

“Enhancing Development: The Significance of Early Sensory Care for Preterm Infants”

What is Sensory Processing Disorder?

A sensory processing disorder (SPD) is characterized by challenges in interpreting and using sensory information from the environment for behavioural regulation and motor performance. Children with SPD may exhibit unique behaviours, known as patterns of sensory responsiveness, which include either hypo- or hyper-responsiveness to sensory stimuli. These behaviours can lead to a child who either under-reacts or over-reacts to sensory input. Such atypical responses can significantly impact a child’s enjoyment and frequency of participation in everyday activities, thereby hindering their developmental skill acquisition. Furthermore, a child’s sensory processing abilities can affect the entire family, as the child may struggle to engage fully in various activities. This places additional stress on parents, who must cope with the extra planning and preparation required, and may even strain family dynamics if the child is unable to participate in activities that hold meaning for the family, such as gatherings or outings.

Why are preterm infants predisposed to Sensory Processing Difficulties?

Sensory development begins early in utero and continues over time, the early sensory development of the preterm infant occurs primarily in an external environment with sensory stimuli the infant is not yet prepared to integrate. Without the protective environment of the womb, preterm infants are exposed to intense auditory, tactile, visual, and nociceptive stimuli in the NICU. These sensory exposures occur during a critical period of brain development, which can interfere with motor, neurological, and sensory development.

Early Neurobehavior Markers in Preterm Infants and Their Impact on Toddlerhood Outcomes:

The relationship between early neurobehavioral markers in preterm infants at term equivalent age and outcomes in toddlerhood is complex and important for identifying developmental risks. Poorer movement quality, higher excitability, and lethargy at term equivalent age are linked to cerebral palsy, cognitive, motor, and language delays at age 2. Similarly, issues with attention, self-regulation, and lethargy predict poorer cognitive development at 2 years, with high excitability and poor self-regulation increasing the odds of cognitive delay. Infants with poorer tolerance of handling may develop tactile sensitivity, while those with poor arousal and hypotonia may have later sensory and auditory processing difficulties. Early identification of these markers can guide interventions to support optimal development in preterm infants.

Importance of Early Sensory Care:

Early sensory care focuses on creating a supportive environment that mimics the womb, providing preterm infants with the sensory experiences they need for optimal development. Gentle touch, soothing sounds, and a calm environment can help regulate their sensory responses and promote positive neurodevelopmental outcomes. Kangaroo care, which involves skin-to-skin contact between the infant and parent, has been shown to improve weight gain, reduce stress, and enhance parent-infant bonding.

How does Early Sensory Integration Therapy help preterm infants?

Early sensory integration therapy aims to help infants develop their sensory processing abilities, which can be particularly beneficial for preterm infants who may have sensory processing difficulties due to their early exposure to the NICU environment. Here are some ways in which early sensory integration therapy can help infants:

  1. Enhances Sensory Processing:Sensory integration therapy helps infants develop the ability to process and respond to sensory stimuli more effectively. This can lead to improved responses to touch, sound, and movement, which are essential for overall development.
  2. Improves Motor Skills:By providing sensory experiences that promote movement, sensory integration therapy can help improve an infant’s motor skills. This is especially important for preterm infants, who may have delays in motor development.
  3. Promotes Self-Regulation:Sensory integration therapy can help infants learn to regulate their responses to sensory stimuli, leading to better self-regulation. This can be particularly beneficial for preterm infants, who may be more prone to sensory overstimulation.
  4. Facilitates Bonding:Sensory integration therapy often involves activities that promote bonding between the infant and caregiver, such as skin-to-skin contact and gentle touch. This can help strengthen the parent-infant bond, which is crucial for infant development.
  5. Supports Cognitive Development:Sensory experiences play a vital role in cognitive development. By providing a variety of sensory experiences, sensory integration therapy can help stimulate brain development and support cognitive skills.

Overall, early sensory integration therapy can help preterm infants develop important skills and abilities that are essential for their overall development and well-being. By providing a supportive environment and tailored interventions, infants can experience improved sensory processing, motor skills, self-regulation, and bonding with their caregivers.

References:

  1. Meether M, Bush CN, Richter M, Pineda R. Neurobehaviour of very preterm infants at term equivalent age is related to early childhood outcomes. Acta Paediatrica. 2021 Apr;110(4):1181-8.
  2. Ryckman J, Hilton C, Rogers C, Pineda R. Sensory processing disorder in preterm infants during early childhood and relationships to early neurobehavior. Early human development. 2017 Oct 1;113:18-22.
  3. Ayres, A. J. (2005). Sensory integration and the child: Understanding hidden sensory challenges. Western Psychological Services.