Touch: The Foundation of Infant Growth and Bonding
A premature infant is defined by Whaley & Wong’s Nursing Care of Infants and Children as "any infant born before completion of 37 weeks of gestation, regardless of birth weight." (Wong, p. 1999, p.392) Many premature infants are also considered high risk neonates because the major activities of life, including thermoregulation, respiration and digestion, cannot fully function at their time of birth. This poses a problem for both the health professionals and the parents of the infant. The health professionals must closely monitor this vulnerable infant and, in most situations, assist the infant in thermoregulation, respiration, and feeding while the cautious, nervous parents look on, concerned about their child’s progress. The parent or parents often feel removed from their child’s care as another adult cares for their child’s every need. Infant stimulation can be as subtle and slight as touch of the infant’s arm or as much as skin to skin contact through holding. Touch actively involves the parents in the their child’s care and has proven to be beneficial for improving the vulnerable, tiny infant’s condition. Parents, as well as medical professionals, should be encouraged to touch these vulnerable tiny infants as much as, if not more than, they would touch a full term infant. Despite their low birth weight, tiny size and vulnerable condition, these infants should be held, caressed and cuddled with as often as possible.
The experience of birth for a mother of a premature infant varies drastically from the birth of a normal full term infant because of the lack of infant stimulation or even sight of her newly born child. Peggy, a mother of newly born premature infant states "I imagined that Bob would be smiling through teary eyes, as we cuddled with our newborn for the first time and waved to the home video camera. Well I found out right away that if your baby comes early, it’s just not like that." (Manginello, 1991, p.23) Peggy’s experience is quite similar to experiences of other mothers after the birth of their premature infant. Is there nothing more painful than not holding the baby you carried and grew with for nearly nine months?
Because of their infant’s vulnerable state, he or she must be immediately evaluated and receive the intensive care necessary to preserve its life. There is little or no time for holding, cuddling and caressing the newest addition to the family, a loss for both the baby and the mother and the father.
However, despite the mother’s medical needs, some mothers do receive an opportunity to see their baby and touch it minimally before it is rushed off for evaluation. Peggy, in Your Premature Baby, further describes her experience by saying, "The doctor folded down the flap of the blanket and let me have a fast look. This at least gave me a picture to hold in my mind. It was my only concrete proof that I did have a baby. It sounds silly, but that one-second...