A Secret to Your Baby’s Development: Their Sensory Systems

June 3, 2022

I'm katie, OTD, OTR/L, NTMTC, CNT & founder of blooming littles

Guess who has the greatest influence on a baby's NICU stay? It's YOU! Let's get you the tools, info, and resources needed to create positive NICU experiences, one interaction at a time.

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Did you know we have eight sensory systems? Eight big body systems that help you take in the world’s information.

Let’s dig deeper into your baby’s sensory systems. We’ll cover not only what each system is, but also why each one is so important to understand when interacting with your baby in the NICU. 

sensory integration and the nicu

So, first, we should address how exactly your baby organizes all of the sensations in the world, which is a fancy term called sensory integration!

Sensory integration is how your baby takes sensory information from the world around them, organizes and processes it in their brain, and then how their body physically responds to this specific feeling. For example, when your baby experiences positive or negative touch in the NICU, they have receptors on their skin that transfer this touch input to their brains, their brain processes if this is a positive or negative feeling and then will respond appropriately.

So, if it is a positive feeling your baby may show positive cues such as a relaxed face or stable heart rate or respiratory rate. If your baby’s brain processes this information as a negative experience it may portray stress signals such as a “stop hand” or grimace.

Learn more about unexpected ways your baby is telling you they are stressed here.

your baby’s 8 sensory systems

We each have 8 sensory systems.

Touch, movement, body awareness, smell, taste, sound, sight, and interoception. 

That’s a lot of input for the body to process! Now, because your baby has immature sensory processing skills, this may be super overwhelming for them.  If your baby was born premature, it can take time for their body to mature and learn to adapt to all of these different experiences. And that’s okay. 

One of the most important things you can do for your baby in the NICU is support positive sensory experiences.

We’re going to discuss some ways you can do that in this blog post. But, you can also check out…

Now let’s navigate through each of the 8 sensory systems and learn how we can help support these systems in your baby while they are staying in the sensory-rich NICU environment. 

Tactile System

The tactile system is also known as your baby’s sense of touch. It’s made up of touch, temperature, pain, and pressure.

This is how your baby experiences the world around them. A fun fact about the tactile system is that it is the first sensory system to develop in your baby. At 8 weeks in the womb, your baby may be able to respond to a stroke on the cheek, how cool! 

When your baby is born, their tactile system is fully functional but still immature. It’s the most developed system at birth, even if your baby was born early. The tricky thing is, your baby is going to experience ALL kinds of touch once they enter the world, including both negative and positive touch in the NICU. Some negative touch experiences could be different procedures, like being intubated, the placement of IVs or catheters, or heel sticks for blood work.

These procedures are 100% necessary and play a crucial role in keeping your baby healthy, but they are still negative input your baby has to process with an immature nervous system. I have some good news for you! There are ways we can counteract these negative touch experiences with some positive touch experiences.

Positive touch experiences can look like:  participating in Kangaroo Care (skin-to-skin holding), giving your baby a hand hug, or giving your baby a deep, calming touch, or massage! By focusing on these experiences, you help build a firm developmental foundation. You’re wiring your baby’s brain to understand that not all touch is “bad touch”. Your touch is so important for your baby! 

Vestibular System

The vestibular system is how your baby is able to process movement.

It is an essential sense to obtain proper balance, orientation, body awareness, coordination, muscle tone, and postural control. When your baby was in the womb they were surrounded by amniotic fluid and when you walked around or moved they were challenged just enough to develop their vestibular system. It reminds me a bit of when you’re in the pool. You’re challenged, but it’s a bit easier to move. 

Your baby is born with a functional (but underdeveloped!) vestibular system, which is important to consider when completing transfers or repositioning your baby. Those are two ways your baby gets movement experiences after birth. 

To support your baby’s developing movement systems, you can complete these movements slowly, while supporting your baby in a flexed and contained position. This helps prevent stress and overstimulation. 

One positive vestibular experience you can give your baby is the feeling of your breathing when holding them skin-to-skin. When your chest rises up and down, it creates a positive movement (vestibular!) experience for your baby!

Gustatory System

The gustatory system is a big word that means our ability to taste!

Babies are able to discriminate between different tastes at just 24 weeks of gestation. They have a preference for sweet tastes (don’t we all!). Unfortunately, babies in the NICU oftentimes experience the negative taste and touch experiences around their mouth such as being intubated or having a feeding tube placed. 

It’s so important to support these early experiences, so NICUs often use sweet solutions like breast milk or a type of sugar water called sucrose to offset uncomfortable sensory experiences.

Breast milk actually has a very sweet taste. If you’re looking to create some positive taste experiences for your little one, you can ask if it’s okay to dip your baby’s pacifier into breast milk or sugar water and allow them to suck before heel sticks or other procedures. Your baby’s medical team likely also uses breast milk when performing your baby’s oral care. This may also help prevent oral aversions.

Early positive experiences surrounding taste will support the developmental skills your baby needs to participate in bottle or breastfeeding. 

Olfactory System

The system that is responsible for your baby’s sense of smell! 

Did you know your baby actually begins smelling odors in the womb? Yep! The most powerful and familiar scent for babies is their mother’s odor. So, when your baby smells mom’s breast milk or their natural scent, it creates a positive experience for them.

The NICU space is full of artificial and unnatural smells such as hand sanitizer, perfumes, soaps, and many different fragrances. When visiting your babe, try to avoid wearing any perfumes or colognes because your natural scent is exactly what your baby needs. Those other smells can be overwhelming and overstimulating. Since your scent provides amazing comfort for your baby, you can keep a scent cloth at your baby’s bedside! 

A scent cloth is a small piece of fabric that you wear during the day and then leave in your baby’s bed before you leave. You can switch it out with a new one when you come to visit. They’re an amazing way to support your baby’s development when you can’t be at the  bedside.

Auditory System

The way your baby is able to process sounds!

This system will continue to develop as your baby continues to grow even into toddlerhood.  Premature babies are not prepared for the high-frequency sounds of the world, especially in the very loud NICU environment. There are a ton of alarms, conversations, and equipment that make the NICU noisier than your baby needs. Those excess noises may cause your baby to startle or feel stressed. Just look for your baby’s cues if you’re curious how your baby responds to the NICU sounds.

To support your baby’s auditory system and sensory processing skills, you can use soft, gentle voices and avoid making any loud sounds (a tough thing in the NICU sometimes!).

It’s important to know that your baby is able to recognize their mom’s voice immediately out of the womb. So, when you talk with your baby, it provides a comforting, positive experience for them. Humming or singing softly at the bedside is also an amazing way to support your baby’s developing auditory system.

Visual System

How your baby is able to see!

Your baby’s visual system is complex and continues to develop long after birth. You baby’s visual system is one thing that is not used while they are in the womb.

This means that when born prematurely they are exposed to visual input way before they are ready to process it. Ways that you can prevent your baby from experiencing too much visual input is to cover their eyes when lights are on or place a blanket over their isolette to block out any extreme visual input. Did you know your face is your baby’s favorite thing to look at? They are learning about you and building a bond with you when they are able to look at your face

Proprioceptive System

The proprioceptive system is the way your baby becomes aware of where their body is in space! Your baby has receptors on their joints that allows them to feel pressure and helps them organize where their body is in space…kind of like body awareness. This is pretty cool!

This sense is really important for development in the future of coordination skills. One way to support the development of your baby’s proprioceptive system is to lay them on their belly with their arms and legs flexed and tucked, this is how they receive pressure to their joints and will help with your baby’s body awareness and help them to feel organized. 

Interoceptive System

The interoception sense is a hidden sense that does not function on the outside of your baby’s body but on the inside. It is a way our body tells us as adults how we are feeling such as thirsty, itchy, angry, anxious, excited, happy, etc.

For example, when you feel like you have “butterflies in your tummy” this is a way your body is telling you that you may be anxious or nervous about something.  It allows your baby to feel things that are going on within such as being sleepy, hungry, comfortable, or hot/cold. It could also be bodily input like reflux or gas. Your baby’s interoceptive system is still very immature when born, so they often times need our help to determine how they are feeling and determine if their environment needs to be changed or supported more. 

As you can see, there are A LOT of feelings our bodies are responsible for processing each and every day.

You CAN support your baby’s sensory systems while they’re in the NICU. 

This isn’t easy. It’s a lot to think about. 

Our babies don’t need us to be perfect. Building your knowledge about this topic will help you feel more in tune with what your baby nee.

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