Enhancing sensory experiences for very preterm infants in the NICU: an integrative review

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Very preterm infants hospitalized in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) experience alterations in sensory experiences. Defining types, timing and frequency of sensory-based interventions that optimize outcomes can inform environmental modifications. The objective of this study was to conduct an integrative review on sensory-based interventions used with very preterm infants in the NICU to improve infant and parent outcomes.


The data sources include MEDLINE, CINAHL, Cochrane Library and Google Scholar. Studies were identified that used sensory-based interventions in the NICU with preterm infants born ≤ 32 weeks gestation, were published in a peer-reviewed journal between 1995 and 2015, and measured outcomes related to infant and parent outcomes. Studies were extracted from electronic databases and hand-searched from identified reference lists.


Eighty-eight articles were identified (31 tactile, 12 auditory, 3 visual, 2 kinesthetic, 2 gustatory/olfactory and 37 multimodal). There was evidence to support the use of kangaroo care, music and language exposure, and multimodal interventions starting at 25 to 28 weeks postmenstrual age. These interventions were related to better infant development and lower maternal stress, but not all findings were consistent. Limitations included lack of consistent outcome measures, study quality and gaps in the literature.


Most research identified interventions that were done for short periods of time. It is unclear what the potential is for improving outcomes if positive sensory exposures occur consistently throughout NICU hospitalization. Until more research defines appropriate sensory-based interventions to use with infants born very preterm in the NICU, information from this review can be combined with expert opinion and parent/family values to determine best practice.

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