It was years ago that Rosemary White-Traut, a University of Illinois at Chicago nurse, first noticed the mothers of premature babies who, afraid to disturb their tiny and fragile newborns to feed them, would just watch them sleep in their incubator.
But by letting them sleep, the also were letting the babies — born early and without the strength of a normal newborn — miss out on needed human interaction and feedings.
Getting the mothers to overcome worries about their premature babies and learn how to give them the care they need became the focus of White-Traut’s research. She developed a series of actions – talking, touching and rocking – that mothers can do to wake their babies up and identify the signs that they are hungry.
“They need to learn about their own baby, and so as we teach them this intervention they learn about premature infant behaviors, but they also learn about their own baby’s behavior,” White-Traut said.
“Babies were more alert when they received this intervention,” she adds.
The method instructs mothers to begin by speaking in soothing tones to their baby, then progress to gently massaging the baby’s body before swaddling it and rocking it in their arms. They should maintain eye contact with the baby throughout the process.
Her most recent research, funded by the National Institutes of Health and published in March, shows that doing these movements before feeding the baby increased their weight and length over those whose mothers have not had the training.
“I think that for the long-term development of the baby, the more the mother can read and respond to the baby’s cues, the better the health of the baby,” White-Traut said, adding she has taught the method to hospital staff around the city and across the country.
Premature babies are “sleepier, they don’t have as good muscle tone [as full-term babies], they can require a lot of stimulation to wake up,” said Debra Nawracaj, a nurse and lactation consultant at the University of Chicago Medical Center who was not involved in the study.
“Parents are more fearful [dealing with premature babies] because the baby is small and born early,” Nawracaj said.
“We need to be touched. That’s part of human nature.”