PARENTS of premature babies who can recognise and treat signs of stress with techniques such as massage can substantially improve their child's brain development.
In studies on babies born as early as 30 weeks, researchers have found that parents who were taught to be attuned to their child's stress levels were better able to soothe them, which in turn meant the babies had improved communication skills at three months and fewer problems with poor sleeping or excessive crying.
With some evidence that stress could impair development of premature babies' brains, Austin Hospital psychologist Jeannette Milgrom has designed a program that taught parents of 68 premature babies in two Melbourne neonatal intensive care units to recognise signs of stress.
''With premature infants the signals are quite varied - it's subtle things like whether the babies are flailing their hands, whether their colour tone is changing and how they are breathing.
''These babies are very susceptible to stress, their nervous system is not yet fully developed and they experience any environmental change, even having a bath, as quite stressful.''
In nine weekly sessions in hospital followed by a home visit, psychologists taught parents how to care for babies while respecting their particular needs.
''These babies do interact quite differently from full-term babies - they are not good social partners, they don't make eye contact, they shut down a lot and you need to respect that because that's their way of saying, 'I need time out','' Professor Milgrom said.
Researchers also showed improved brain development, measured by magnetic resonance imaging scans, in babies whose parents had the training.
More than 50 per cent of premature babies have developmental difficulties of varying severity, including learning, social and behavioural problems that persist to school age.
Professor Milgrom, who presented details of her research at the Australian Psychological Society's annual conference in Perth yesterday, is testing the program in a larger group of 123 children who were born prematurely and are now four. She will follow their progress to age six in a bid to show that training parents to recognise and respond to stress has resulted in long-term benefits to babies' development.
Jennifer Benham said the program helped her to recognise distress in her daughter Amy, who was born at 27 weeks and is now almost four.
''If she was stressed, particularly after any procedures, her skin used to go quite motley and she would get the hiccups …
''Once I learnt those signs, if I bundled her up and cocooned her it would have an instant effect, the skin would return back to its normal colour, the hiccups would stop and the heartbeat would slow back down,'' she said.