It’s common knowledge that one way to comfort a baby is to give a pacifier. What you may not know is that in premature babies, the act of sucking sometimes doesn’t come naturally. It’s often necessary to teach this important milestone in premature babies, for more reasons than just comfort. Early oral stimulation is a developmental therapy used for babies in our Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). Skin-to-skin care, or Kangaroo care, is the first form of early oral stimulation that infants receive. This type of care entails placing baby directly on Mom or Dad’s chest and covering them with a blanket. This can begin at 3 days of life. Skin to skin care stimulates the sense of touch and smell.
Beginning at 28 weeks corrected gestational age, an infant can be provided with a pacifier dipped in milk or formula two times a day. This is done immediately before, during or after cares, and while being fed through a tube into the stomach. When infants first start this therapy they suck on the pacifier briefly. After a few weeks they are able to take longer sucking bursts. It slowly trains them to suck and associate the taste of breast milk or formula with the sensation of a full stomach.
Non-nutritive breast feeding (Mom pumps prior to placing baby to breast) is another very valuable oral stimulation tool that we use as soon as a baby is able to tolerate it to promote successful direct breast feeding.
Research has shown that early oral stimulation increases time in alert states, and decreases time in restless states. It also helps preterm infants transition from tube feedings to full bottle feedings sooner; which means an earlier discharge to home.
Beth Martin RNC, MSN, graduated from Otterbein College with a bachelor's of science in nursing and completed her master's of science in nursing in 2010. She has worked at Nationwide Children’s in the NICU since 1996.
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