Watching for signals
Our family photo album has an entire page of Daniel, a few weeks after he came home from the hospital, looking completely terrified. His eyes are opened wide, his arms are flailing outward, and he actually appears to be screaming. It is obvious to me now that my son was overly stressed by my photographic efforts, but at the time my quest for the perfect picture kept me from seeing his signals.
Daniel's reaction to a stimulating activity was typical for a premature baby, according to Theresa Kledzik, RN, a neonatal nurse with an expertise in the developmental care of preterm infants who works at Memorial Hospital in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
"Babies are designed to develop in the womb, and when they're born early, their immature brains must process sights, sounds and smells before they're ready to. They can easily become overstimulated," she says.
This doesn't mean you can't take your baby's picture, but do give him time to recover between shots when he's stressed.
Luckily, your baby will tell you when he wants to interact and when he's had enough. Here's how to know what he's saying:
"I need a break"
Your baby may need a time-out if he turns pale, yawns, twitches, sneezes or hiccups; holds his hands up as if to say "no" or "stop," salutes with one hand or spreads his fingers apart; looks panicked; has a bowel movement; gags or spits up; and/or looks away or closes his eyes.
"If your baby communicates stress, you need to become a sleuth," says Kledzik. What upset your baby? A sudden movement? A loud noise? Too much handling?
To soothe your baby, create a low-stimulation environment by turning off the television, dimming the lights, and reducing activity. Encourage your baby to suck on his hand, your fingers, or a pacifier.
"I want to play"
Your baby may be ready to interact if she focuses her eyes on you or an object; stays still without squirming; grasps your finger, an object, or her hands together; holds one foot on top of the other, or one foot next to the other; and/or looks content.
Begin socializing with your baby by slowly offering one activity at a time: your face, your voice, then an object to hold. "Each time you add a stimulation, read how your baby handles it, and cut back if necessary," Kledzik says. With time and patience, recognizing and responding to your baby's cues will come naturally. And as your baby's brain grows, handling the world won't be so difficult for him. Soon, you'll both enjoy longer play sessions -- and maybe even some photo sessions.