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Developmentally Focused Care

Providing special care for sick and premature babies

Advances in the care of sick and premature babies include new technology and medicine. There are also treatments that focus on the special emotional and developmental needs of these babies. Babies in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) face many tests, procedures, noises, and lights. This is very different from the warm, dark, comfort of the mother's womb. Some babies are too sick to be held. Or they may have trouble comforting themselves when not being held. Premature babies especially need special support to help them continue to mature and develop as they would in their mother's womb.

What is developmental care?

The practice of developmental care is used in many NICUs to meet babies' special needs. Developmental care involves many aspects such as:

  • Meeting babies’ comfort needs

  • Helping babies feel secure

  • Helping babies develop normal sleep patterns

  • Decreasing stimulation from noise, lights, or procedures

Research into developmental care is finding many benefits for babies, especially for premature babies. These benefits include:

  • Shorter hospital stays

  • Fewer complications

  • Improved weight gain

  • Better feeding

  • Enhanced parent and infant bonding

Developmental care includes:

  • Changing the baby's surroundings to provide normal day/night cycles and decrease noise and stress

  • Providing cushions for supporting the baby's position and keeping the baby's arms and legs in proper arrangement to help with development and comfort

  • Using signals from the baby to plan care at times when the baby is awake and least stressed rather than interrupting sleep patterns or performing procedures when the baby is at a high stress level

What is Kangaroo Care?

Kangaroo Care is a practice that started in Colombia in the late 1970s. It has been used worldwide because it is especially helpful for premature babies. Kangaroo Care means holding a NICU baby skin-to-skin, or against the parent's chest. Premature and sick babies who kangaroo appear to relax and become content. Several studies show that Kangaroo Care has many health benefits, including:

  • Higher blood oxygen levels

  • Improved sleep

  • Improved breastfeeding

  • Improved weight gain

Kangaroo Care also helps parents feel close to their baby, and gives them confidence in their ability to meet their baby's needs. Mothers who kangaroo also show improved breast milk production. Many of these effects in parents and babies are because skin-to-skin contact increases levels of oxytocin. Oxytocin is a hormone that naturally causes milk release as well as feelings of relaxation and connection. 

Online Medical Reviewer: Freeborn, Donna, PhD, CNM, FNP
Online Medical Reviewer: Lee, Kimberly G., MD, MSc, IBCLC
Date Last Reviewed: 11/1/2016
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