The PREMATURE INFANT is born disadvantaged in many ways. Frequently, his intrauterine existence has to be abruptly terminated because of a threat to his life. This means that there may not be enough time for him to start adjusting to the outside world. His lungs may not be mature enough, his temperature regulation inadequate, and his immune system completely unprepared for life outside the womb.
Fortunately for him, modern science and nature together can offset the many risks to which he is exposed. What science cannot offer him is the exact prebirth nutrition and the ambiance of life in the womb. Many people of certain cultures may attribute mental and personality peculiarities to this lack. They may say, 'that's because he is premature' when the now-grown premature child's behavior does not fulfill their
expectations, even if he is mentally superior or developmentally normal. The question for us then is, what was lacking, if one can use the term? Are there ways to make up for that lost time?
Sometimes, infants are born with very low birth weights but are actually full term. These babies are also high risk, and although varied reasons may explain their failure to gain weight inside the womb, they have increased chances of developing complications related to this low birth weight. Neurologic handicaps are what we usually worry about when the medical problems have been taken care of.
Parents' involvement in the care of their sick neonates is a major concern of many pediatricians and of the nursery staff. Touching and stroking and talking, and later, massaging, are encouraged during frequent visits to the nursery. It is hoped that the emotional bonding of parents and their low birth weight infants will increase mental stimulation as well as prevent handicaps, including psychological ones.
BREASTFEEDING may not be feasible for many of these babies because of their breathing problems or trouble with their digestive systems, or sometimes because of the poor sucking effort of their tiny mouths, but frequently, we try to have the mother express her breast milk for feeding by tube or dropper. The baby gets the benefit of the special nutritive and immune elements of breast milk and the mother feels committed and not as helpless. This can only bring more treasures to the beginning relationship.
Because premature infants sometimes seem fragile, parents may handle them less, or are more than careful with them. Skin to skin contact is important to the growing infant, premature or fullterm. Lack of this may predispose the child to psychological problems as well as diminish opportunities for learning.
Often, this attitude may translate into over-protection of the growing premature. He may not be allowed to handle certain things, or may be told to be careful, stop, don't..., etc.
The child loses confidence in his physical abilities to move his body and manipulate things and inhibits himself from the constant exploratory behavior of the learning individual.