Impact of a sensory-based intervention in the NICU on parents and their preterm born babies


35 families received the Supporting and Enhancing Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) Sensory Experiences (SENSE) programme-based intervention. The preterm born babies (≤ 32 weeks of pregnancy) experienced sensory exposures like human touch or massage on each day of their NICU hospitalisation. The main aim of the study was to find out whether it makes a difference who is performing (parents vs. volunteers/professionals) the sensory activity regarding the babies’ neurobehaviour and parental mental health. In the group where the parents carried out most of the sensory activity, the babies were less lethargic and parental mental health was enhanced.

When two or more people engage in mutual occupation or meaningful activity, this is defined as co-occupation. One interesting type of co-occupation is parent-child-occupation. Typically related activities are feeding or other caregiving activities like playing between adult and child. The concept of co-occupation is now also present in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), and the sensory experience, such as skin-to-skin, is a benefit both for the parent and the infant. Activities like gentle human touch, massage, or reading to the child are also part of typical co-occupations in the NICU. In most cases, the parents perform these activities, but they may also be done by professionals and/or volunteers.

One programme based on the concept of co-occupation is the “Supporting and Enhancing NICU Sensory Experiences” (SENSE) programme, which educates parents on the amount of sensory exposures that should be offered daily to preterm-born babies in the NICU.

In the study by Richter and colleagues, 35 families were included in an intervention based on the SENSE programme. The aim was to explore whether there are differences in child behaviour and parental mental health depending on which person performs the sensory activity. The population of the study consisted of a sample from a past study which evaluated the SENSE programme. Babies were included within seven days after birth when being born at or before 32 weeks of pregnancy, without birth-related health challenges. Since parents are not always able to be continuously present with their child, the study also examined the impact of sensory activities done by professionals or volunteers. The babies were divided into two groups based on the person conducting most of the sensory activities: the parent-infant co-occupation group and the “Other Administered” group.

The study found no statistically significant differences between the two groups when assessing neurobehavioral issues, but other differences were detected. Babies of the parent-infant-group had a lower score on the lethargy scale. Those parents who were responsible for most of the sensory-based interactions were more likely to score lower in the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory, which measures different types of anxiety. There was also a non-significant trend in the parent-infant co-occupation group, showing lower scores of parenting stress and parental stress.

These findings support the importance of interaction between (preterm) babies and their parents/caregivers in the NICU setting. Nevertheless, in case parents/caregivers cannot provide touch or other activities, volunteers or professionals may be a useful source of support which should be promoted further in the NICU environment.


Paper available at: Journal of Occupational Therapy

Full list of authors: M. Richter, A. Angell, P. Kellner, J. Smith, and R. Pineda

DOI: 10.1177/15394492231160690